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Bush, Sharon focus on terror groups

Bush and Sharon briefed reporters at the White House
Bush and Sharon briefed reporters at the White House

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Following a meeting Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Bush said more must be done to "dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure" in the Mideast.

The talks on the so-called "road map" to Mideast peace followed a similar meeting Friday with Sharon's Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas. (Full story)

"The Palestinian Authority must undertake sustained, targeted and effective operations to confront those engaged in terror and to dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure," Bush said during a Rose Garden news conference.

The president also asked Sharon to help ease tensions with Palestinians.

Sharon referred to a temporary cease-fire declared by Palestinian militant groups who have claimed responsibility for past terrorist attacks on Israelis.

"While relative quiet currently prevails in Israel, terror has not yet completely ceased," Sharon said.

"We are concerned that this welcome quiet will be shattered any minute as a result of the continued existence of terror organizations which the Palestinian Authority is doing nothing to eliminate or dismantle."

"I encouraged the prime minister to take further steps to improve the daily conditions faced by Palestinians," Bush said, thanking Sharon for Israel's easing of travel restrictions on Palestinians who work and study in Israel.

"Much hard work remains to be done by Israelis and Palestinians and by their neighbors," Bush said.

The leaders also discussed the fence Israel is building in the West Bank, which has been a point of contention in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Palestinians say the fence divides some Palestinian towns and is an impediment to peace. They also say the fence creates a unilaterally drawn Israeli border even before proposed negotiations can begin on official borders of a Palestinian state. Israel says the fence is meant to thwart terrorist attacks.

"The security fence will continue to be built with every effort to minimize their infringement on the daily life of the Palestinian population," Sharon said, reiterating his pledge to dismantle illegal Jewish settlements. "Unauthorized outposts will be removed as required in a law-abiding country."

Bush said he hoped the peace process would eventually minimize the fence issue.

"I fully understand that the most effective campaign to enhance the security of Israel, as well as the security of peace-loving people in the Palestinian territories, is to get after organizations such as Hamas, the terrorist organizations that create the conditions where peace won't exist," Bush said.

"And therefore I would hope in the long term a fence would be irrelevant."

Following his meeting Friday with Abbas, Bush said, "I think the wall is a problem." Abbas was even more emphatic.

"If the settlement activities in Palestinian land and construction of the so-called separation wall on confiscated Palestinian land continue," Abbas said, "we might soon find ourselves at a situation where the foundation of peace, a free Palestine state living side by side in peace and security in Israel, is a factual impossibility."

A Sharon adviser said Tuesday that Israel was willing to hear U.S. considerations over the proposed route of the fence, but the adviser also said Israel would not dismantle the existing one. Parts of the fence that have been built extend from Qalqilya to Jenin and around Jerusalem.

Abbas also called for "freeing prisoners, lifting the siege on Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas and easing up freedom of movement to Palestinians."

Israel announced last week it would dismantle three military checkpoints in the West Bank.

On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet voted 14-9 to allow Hamas and Islamic Jihad members held in Israeli prisons to be released along with other Palestinians who meet certain conditions set by the Cabinet, according to sources. Israeli media reports put the number being considered for release at 540.

Sharon's office said Friday about 250 Palestinian prisoners had already been freed and that a ministerial committee would meet in August "to discuss changing the criteria for the release of prisoners, which will enable the release of hundreds more."

Palestinian Authority's information minister Nabil Amr said he saw nothing positive in Sharon's comments.

"We hoped Ariel Sharon would support our efforts. Instead, he appears to be undermining them," he said.

Amr said Bush presented a balanced position because he supports the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Mideast road map is backed by the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union. It is aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establishing an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

Since the beginning of his administration in January 2001, Bush has not met with Arafat because he did not view him as committed to ending terrorist attacks against Israelis by Palestinian militants.

Abbas was named Palestinian Authority prime minister in April. By June 29, Palestinian militant members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah declared a temporary cease-fire against Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad declared a three-month cease-fire and Fatah -- Arafat's political movement -- declared theirs for six months.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was also expected to meet with Sharon.

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