Bush calls on Israel to withdraw 'without delay'
CRAWFORD, Texas (CNN) -- Flanked by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush on Saturday urged Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories "without delay" -- some of his strongest words directed at the long-time U.S. ally since he took office.
In a 20-minute phone call two hours after the president's comments, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Bush that Israel will expedite its offensive in the West Bank, according to a statement from Sharon's office.
In the statement, Sharon said Israel was conscious of Washington's desire to see the operation ended quickly. But it did not specify when Israeli troops would begin pulling out of the six Palestinian towns they now occupy.
A senior Bush administration official said the president, who made the call, urged Sharon to withdraw so Secretary of State Colin Powell's upcoming mission to the Middle East could succeed. Asked if Bush was satisfied with the prime minister's response, the official said, "The president expects action. The president will see."
Speaking at a news conference earlier at his Texas ranch, Bush also called on Palestinian leaders to "order an immediate and effective cease-fire and crackdown on terrorists." (Transcript)
Blair, who has been criticized at home for his staunch support of America's Middle East policy, concurred with the president. He described Bush's vision as "the only basis on which there will be and can be a viable and lasting peace there."
Israeli forces aim to eliminate terror groups' ability to target Israeli civilians by arresting suspects, capturing their weapons and destroying their bomb-making capabilities, Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz said Saturday.
The IDF claims it is holding 1,200 Palestinians in connection with terrorism and will reopen the Ketziot internment camp in southern Israel for the detainees.
The exchange between Sharon and Bush came as the Palestinian death toll rose in fresh violence in the West Bank and a day before Powell departs for the region.
Earlier in the week, Powell said there were no plans for him to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, now holed up in his Ramallah compound surrounded by Israeli forces, but he did not rule out the possibility.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat welcomed Powell's visit, but said, "If Mr. Powell comes here and he doesn't want to meet President Arafat, I don't think he will meet any Palestinian officials."
Bush repeated his sharp criticism of Arafat on Saturday, saying "He never earned my trust because he hasn't performed."
"He said he would fight off terror. He hasn't," Bush said. "He needs to speak clearly, in Arabic, to the people of that region and condemn terrorist activities. At the very minimum, he ought to say something."
Bush and Blair also addressed Iraq, calling on the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. (Full story)
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