The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Israel (search) said in an interview broadcast Sunday that President George W. Bush will back a request by Israel to keep larger West Bank settlement areas under its control in a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Palestinians reacted with anger to the comments, saying they would only encourage Israel to pre-empt final status negotiations.

Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer (search), who completed his term Friday, cited an April 2004 letter from Bush to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), setting out the U.S. position on settlements.

"The policy is exactly what the president said," Kurtzer said in the prerecorded interview. "In the context of a final status agreement, the United States will support the retention by Israel of areas with a high concentration of Israeli population."

Kurtzer's language went slightly further than the original Bush letter, which did not speak of Israel retaining territory it captured in the 1967 Middle East war but said only that a return to the prewar borders of 1949 was unlikely.

"In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949," Bush wrote in the letter handed to Sharon during a visit to Washington on April 14 last year.

In a letter he handed Bush in exchange, Sharon pledged to dismantle settlement outposts put up since March 2001 and limit expansion of existing settlements.

A senior Palestinian official, Saeb Erekat (search), said that the United States should remain unbiased in matters related to the final peace agreement between the sides.

"I believe this pre-empts and prejudges issues that are reserved for final status negotiations," Erekat said. "Any talk of pre-empting and prejudging is counterproductive to the peace process."

Kurtzer, who is leaving the State Department for an academic post, is to be succeeded by Richard H. Jones (search), due to arrive in Israel later Sunday. Jones has served in his three-decade career in four Arab countries and speaks fluent Arabic, U.S. Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle said.

Jones told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee he believes Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) will rein in the militant group Hamas (search), as required in a U.S.-backed peace plan. Jones will present his credentials on Sept. 26, Tuttle said.