Bush praises Sharon's pullout proposal
Erakat: Proposal is 'severe blow to peace process'
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shares a news briefing Wednesday with President Bush.
President Bush denies taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon talks about his withdrawal proposal.
Key points of Bush statement
Backs Israeli proposal to remove all settlements and certain military installations from Gaza, and to remove some settlements and certain military installations from the West Bank.
Calls West Bank security barrier "temporary" and does not want it to influence final borders.
Considers full return to armistice lines of 1949 to be "unrealistic" and that Palestinians must take into account some Israeli "large, established population centers."
Mutually agreed changes that reflect those settlement "realities" are the only basis for any final status agreements.
Does not support Palestinian so-called "right of return" to Israel. Says Palestinian refugees would be settled in Palestinian state once it is established.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush endorsed an Israeli plan Wednesday to pull back from Gaza and part of the West Bank, but denied the United States was taking sides in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At a White House news briefing following a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush said "realities on the ground" dictated that Israel should be able to keep some settlements in any future peace agreement.
Bush praised Sharon for his withdrawal proposal.
"These are historic and courageous actions," Bush said. "If all parties choose to embrace this moment, they can open the door to progress and put an end to one of the world's longest-running conflicts."
Bush also embraced Sharon's position that Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to a new Palestinian state but not to Israel.
Sharon's government proposes a "disengagement" plan that includes a provision for Israel to pull out all Jewish settlements and troops from Gaza and all but six blocs of Jewish settlements from the West Bank.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said that allowing some Israeli settlements to remain in the West Bank would be "a severe blow to the peace process."
"I don't think that Israelis should be rewarded [for] illegal practices of stealing Palestinian land," Erakat said in Ramallah, West Bank.
Bush did not directly address Israel's assertions that it would keep the six settlement blocs.
But he did say: "As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338."
Erakat said Bush could not judge issues of permanent status.
"This will be a major deviation to the road map and international law, and just add to the complexities and constitute a severe blow to the peace process," he said.
The "road map" -- backed by the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia -- lays out steps Israel and the Palestinians must take toward ending conflict and establishing an independent Palestine by 2005.
Erakat said that in October 1991 Bush's father sent his secretary of state, James Baker, to the Middle East with a letter of assurance saying settlements were illegal.
The Palestinian negotiator said the current President Bush has no right to change U.N. Resolutions 242 or 338 or the road map.
"But I want to make clear, if Israel wants peace, they know the address. It is Palestinian elected leadership -- we who will make peace. We who, with Israelis, work to break this vicious cycle of violence," Erakat said.
Hours after Bush and Sharon spoke, Israeli tanks and bulldozers entered the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah along the border of Gaza and Egypt early Thursday, witnesses said.
The Israel Defense Forces said the operation was launched to find tunnels used by Palestinians to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt.
Palestinian witnesses said the Israelis moved into Rafah with 26 vehicles, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and four bulldozers. Two Apache helicopters hovered overhead, the witnesses said.
Bush on barrier and 'right of return'
The Israeli disengagement plan also includes the building of a security barrier -- already under construction -- that Israel says will block Palestinians from attacking Israel from the West Bank.
Palestinians call the barrier a land grab, saying it leaves many Palestinians cut off from farms, schools and hospitals as it winds its way through portions of the West Bank.
Bush said the security barrier should be "temporary rather than permanent."
Bush also said he did not support the Palestinians' demand for the so-called "right of return."
The "right of return" refers to Palestinian refugees and their descendants who left or were forced to leave Israel when the Jewish state was founded in 1948. Palestinians demand the right to return to those lands that are now part of Israel.
"It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than Israel," Bush said.
Sharon said he had gained from his talks with Bush.
"What I've learned from my visit here is that the plan -- disengagement plan -- contributes to the security of Israel, contributes to the political situation of Israel in the world and helps our economy," Sharon said.
In advance of the White House meeting, Palestinian Authority officials warned that a Bush endorsement of Sharon's plan would be a "dangerous" development.
"We are really and seriously concerned about the reports that there will be a statement or promises during a meeting between the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. president," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei told reporters in Ramallah.
"As of 11 a.m. today the Palestinian leadership will be in constant meetings to follow up this dangerous development to show how dangerous this development is."
Sharon has said the withdrawal is necessary because the Palestinian Authority had failed to rein in attacks on Israelis and because the diplomatic process is in a "frozen state."
On Monday, Sharon announced the plan to keep six "large settlement blocs" of West Bank land under Israeli control -- Jewish settlements inside Hebron and the nearby enclave of Kiryat Arba, as well as Maaleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev, Ariel and Gush Etzion.
"Only Israeli political initiative will retain our strong grasp of the large settlement blocs and security areas," Sharon said in his speech Monday at Maaleh Adumim, near Jerusalem.
"These are places that will remain under Israeli control and that will continue to grow stronger and develop," he said.
In Phase 1 of the road map, Palestinians must end attacks against Israel, and Israel must freeze the development of settlements and dismantle those established since March 2001. The six settlement blocs named by Sharon were built before March 2001.
Vote expected in Israel
Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt in 1967 during the Six-Day War and began building settlements there soon after. Sharon has asked his Likud party to vote on his withdrawal proposal.
A vote has been set after his return from Washington.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair also applauded Sharon's proposal. Reuters reported Blair urged the world community to "work together to seize this opportunity to inject new life into the peace process."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who discussed the proposal Monday with Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, said an Israeli pullback from Gaza would be a positive step if coupled with the road map.
"Any withdrawal from occupied territory is very highly appreciated," Mubarak said, but warned that a withdrawal from Gaza, which borders Egypt, without any further steps toward a settlement "would not be accepted by public opinion in the area."
Mubarak said Egypt would do "whatever it takes" to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Gaza is already separated from Israel by a fence, but Israeli troops remain in the area to guard Jewish settlements. Removing the settlements would mean no Israelis would be left for the Israeli military to protect.
In 1994, under the Oslo Accords, Israel ceded control of most of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority but kept control of the coastline, borders and 24 settlements where about 7,500 Israelis live in heavily guarded enclaves.