The U.S. administration, in response to concerns expressed Friday by Israeli officials over pledges made to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, clarified that the United States has not changed its position regarding future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli officials expressed concerns that verbal pledges made by Bush this weekend to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas contradict a letter of understanding Bush gave Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last year.
The U.S. National Security Council Spokesman said on Friday that the president had not changed his position on the Middle East peace process.
An official in Sharon’s office expressed satisfaction regarding the U.S. dismissal of Abbas’ request to skip the road map’s intermediate phase and move directly to final-status talks, stressing that Abbas was not handed any written assurances.
The intermediate phase of the road map calls for establishing a Palestinian state with temporary borders.
In his joint press conference with Abbas, U.S. President George Bush demanded that Israel halt all settlement construction, making a specific reference to settlements in Jerusalem and its surroundings.
Bush also declared that "any border deviations from the 1949 armistice lines would have to be by mutual Israeli-Palestinian consent."
In his letter of assurances to Sharon, Bush called for recognizing "new demographic realities" in marking borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state, considered as a strong reference for a U.S. backing to Israel’s demand to include major West Bank settlement blocks within the Israeli side of the future borders.
Palestinian Authority (PA) officials had expressed satisfaction on Bush’s explicit call for Israel to halt all settlement activities, particularly those in Jerusalem, and his declared stance on final status issues.
A PA official source said Friday that Bush’s speech had opened the door for a meeting between Abbas and Sharon in the next two weeks.
Bush also made an explicit reference to the importance of establishing a Palestinian state, which ensures contiguity within the West Bank and with a "meaningful linkage" between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
"This is the position of the United States today; it will be the position of the United States at the time of final status negotiations." Bush confirmed.
Palestinian officials expected that Bush’s statements would give Abbas a boost at home.
"It was a success for the Palestinian side and for the efforts to achieve peace in the region," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser Al-Kidwa told The Associated Press in Washington.
"I don’t think we’ve heard such a clear and comprehensive U.S. position in the past." he added.
"I can tell you frankly that what we heard from President Bush exceeded our expectations," said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.
Bush also called Israel to "work with the Palestinian leadership to improve the daily lives of Palestinians, especially their humanitarian situation." Warning Israel against "undertaking any activity that contravenes road map obligations or prejudices final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem."
Bush also made a strong reference to settlers’ outposts and the West Bank separation wall.
"Israel must remove unauthorized outposts and stop settlement expansion. The barrier being erected by Israel as a part of its security effort must be a security, rather than political, barrier. And its route should take into account, consistent with security needs, its impact on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities." Bush said.
Bush also reiterated the road map peace plan’s demand that Israeli forces withdraw to their positions as of September 28, 2000, but linked the process with "progress towards security,"
Bush also promised to give $50 million in direct aid to the PA, to be earmarked for "new housing and infrastructure projects" in the Gaza Strip.
Bush’s pledge contradicts the U.S. Congress’ decision to funnel aid through nongovernmental organizations, which the PA had considered a "slap in the face to Abbas"
Nevertheless, U.S. administration officials said, the PA will have to present a detailed plan for how the money will be used before any funds are transferred.
Bush also announced that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will go to Jerusalem and Ramallah prior to the disengagement from Gaza to discuss Israeli-Palestinian coordination of the withdrawal and "the way back onto the road map."
Bush praised Abbas for his stance on terror, saying: "The United States and the international community applaud your rejection of terrorism."
"All who engage in terror are the enemies of a Palestinian state, and must be held to account." Bush added.
Abbas, for his part, reiterated his "determination to maintain and preserve this calm" and said that the Palestinian people support his efforts in this regard.
In response to reporters’ questions, Bush said that his administration still consider Hamas a terrorist group, but offered no objections to Hamas running in the PA elections.
"You cannot have a democracy based upon rule of law if you have armed bands of people who will use their weapons to try to achieve a political outcome." Bush warned Abbas.
Abbas, in return, pledged to continue the work to reform and democratization the PA, reminding his host that "democracy cannot flourish under occupation and in the absence of freedom."
Abbas expressed readiness to coordinate with Israel over the withdrawal from Gaza, but said: "we must then immediately move to permanent status negotiations to deal with the issues of Al-Quds (Jerusalem) as a capital of the future state of Palestine, the issues of refugees, settlements, borders, security, and water, on the basis of President Bush’s vision, UN resolutions, and the vision put forth by the Arab Initiative."