WASHINGTON – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) brushed off a warning from President Bush about further West Bank settlement growth, indicating Israel would continue to solidify its hold on areas it considers of strategic importance.
In a meeting Tuesday with U.S. newspaper editors, Sharon also reiterated his call for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) to take stronger steps to curb militants.
"I have known him for many years. There is no doubt he represents a departure from Yasser Arafat's strategy of terror," Sharon said, according to a senior Israeli official. "But he must take additional steps to disarm terror organizations, stop incitement, or we can't move forward from the pre-road map stage."
Abbas, who is to meet Bush next month, has preferred a strategy of negotiations with militant groups rather than confrontation.
The Israeli official, who was traveling with Sharon and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the prime minister also discussed developments in Iran and Lebanon (search) and prospects for democracy in the Middle East with editors at the American Society of Newspaper Editors meeting.
Sharon met later with Vice President Dick Cheney, discussing U.S.-Israeli issues and the Iranian nuclear threat, an official said.
Sharon also discussed the Iranian threat with President Bush on Monday when the two leaders met at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Israeli officials said Sharon's military secretary, Yoav Galant, presented Bush with Israeli intelligence on Iran's nuclear program, including satellite pictures.
Sharon believes the European effort to curb the Iran's nuclear ambitions has been ineffective. Israeli intelligence officials, however, do not believe the Iranians have yet produced a nuclear weapon.
At a joint news conference at Bush's ranch Monday, the Israeli leader won renewed support for his plan to remove Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank but he dampened the president's expectations that the tempo of peace talks would pick up after the withdrawal.
At the ranch, Bush told Sharon that any further building on the settlements would be in violation of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, which both the Israelis and the Palestinians have formally accepted, but which has been long dormant with both sides failing to carry out their initial obligations.
"I've been very clear. Israel has an obligation under the road map. That's no expansion of settlements," Bush said.
But later, Sharon said that while U.S. opposition to the settlements dated back to when Israel first captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war, Israel has nevertheless continued to build communities to keep a hold on the land.
"It was not to antagonize the U.S., but to keep areas that seem strategic to Israel," Sharon told reporters.
The latest dispute stems from differing interpretations of a statement made by Bush last year, and reaffirmed Monday, where he recognized Israel's need to keep large settlement blocs in the West Bank. Bush cited "new realities on the ground."
Israel believes this allows for expansion of exiting settlements, while the U.S. says this would endanger peace with the Palestinians.
The issue reappeared last month when Israel announced plans to add 3,650 homes to the West Bank's largest settlement, Maaleh Adumim. The plan would cut off Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. The United States objected.
Sharon said Israel will keep large settlement blocs like Maaleh Adumim. "The blocs will be part of Israel, with everything that that entails," Sharon said, indicating the construction that will link Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem will continue.
In Texas, Bush expressed optimism that Sharon's plan to withdraw from all 21 Gaza settlements and four others in the West Bank — which he praised as courageous — would jump-start the tenuous peace process.
If Israel's withdrawal from Gaza comes off successfully, then, "I think we'll have a different frame of mind" more conducive to pursuing peace, Bush said. "To me, that's where the attention of the world ought to be, on Gaza."
But there will be no progress after the Gaza pullout unless "the Palestinians completely fulfill their obligations of stopping terror attacks, waging a war against terror, destroying the terror infrastructure and reforming their security services," Sharon said.