President Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday that the United States opposes Israel's plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and prodded him to stick to the U.S.-backed vision for peace in the Middle East.
At the men's first meeting at the president's Texas ranch, Bush offered the Israeli leader the high-profile endorsement of the Gaza pullout he was seeking and urged the Palestinians to coordinate with Israel.
The president repeated his assurance that Israel would not be expected to surrender some West Bank areas in future negotiations.
While he praised the prime minister for vowing to remove "unauthorized" Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territory, mostly in Gaza, Bush cautioned Sharon not to expand Maaleh Adumim, the largest one in the West Bank.
"I told the prime minister not to undertake any activity that contravenes" the "road map" for peace supported by the United States, much of Europe and key leaders in the Middle East, Bush, with Sharon by his side, told reporters outside his new office at the ranch. "Israel has obligations under the road map. The road map clearly says no expansion of settlements."
He was specifically referring to Maaleh Adumim.
Sharon, who earlier had said he faces a civil war back home over his plan to pull Jewish settlers out of Gaza, showed no signs of backing away from eventually building more than 3,500 homes in the West Bank. He also called on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on terrorists if he wants peace talks to prosper.
"Only after the Palestinians fulfill all their obligations, first and foremost a real war against terrorism and the dismantling of the terror infrastructure . . . can we proceed toward negotiations based on the road map," Sharon said.
The two leaders, despite their disagreement over the West Bank settlement issues, said they were committed to moving ahead toward the goal of creating an independent, democratic Palestinian state on Israel's border and were hopeful significant progress will be made by this summer on a lasting peace. Bush and Sharon did not appear to break any new ground in the talks, but both men walked away from their 11th meeting in four years with the ammunition they sought to keep the peace process alive and deflect criticism of their respective approaches at home and abroad.
Sharon, under fire from settlers and members of the right-wing Likud Party, was seeking support in public to mollify critics.
One U.S. official said the carefully worded exchange over settlements will allow Sharon to get back on the plane and tell the Israeli press how Bush generally supports his moves.
The president applauded Sharon's "courage" for planning to remove all 21 settlements from Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank, requiring 9,000 Israelis to leave their homes, and he welcomed the prime minister's promise to, "fulfill my commitment to you, Mr. President, to remove unauthorized outposts." Sharon has promised in the past to remove those outposts, but has not.
For Bush, who has dedicated his second term to spreading democracy in the Middle East, the next few months should offer some clues as to whether the election of Abbas was truly a breakthrough for stalled peace talks or simply another moment of false or fleeting hope in the Middle East.