JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday that he shares President Bush's vision for the Middle East and that Palestinians must decide whether they want to follow a corrupt leadership or enjoy economic development.
"Israel welcomes the principles included in the speech of President George Bush and supports their implementation," Sharon told top Israeli economists in his first such direct endorsement of last month's U.S. policy address.
Bush urged Palestinians to elect a new leadership "not compromised by terror," as a step toward Palestinian statehood. His proposal, however, also contained elements long opposed by Sharon, including dismantling Israeli settlements and negotiating eventual Palestinian borders near the 1967 pre-war lines.
Sharon did not address those elements in his comments, his strongest public statements in support of Bush's position. Previously, his spokesmen have been enthusiastic and have said Sharon supports it.
"If the Palestinians are wise enough to free themselves from the regime of murder and terror, they will be able to achieve a life of freedom on their land — to obtain for themselves, by right, an honored place in the community of nations, and to bring economic prosperity and real hope for the future of their children," Sharon said.
The prime minister spoke of the possibilities of building up a Gaza Strip port that could compete with the Israeli port of Ashdod and one day running trains from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank — but only if Palestinians replace their current leadership.
"The Palestinian people have to decide: a corrupt authority which operates terrorism and leaves 1.8 million Palestinians to receive charity from other countries, or economic development, employment, industrial zones and schools," he said. "The Palestinian people have to decide. We have decided."
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has given no sign he intends to step aside, and Bush's call has rallied Palestinians around their leader, despite serious economic hardships and long-standing complaints of corruption in the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian leadership and legislative elections are planned for January.