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Since 1st March, 1999
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Unfazed Sharon readies for Bush summit

Jerusalem, May 26 (Reuters): Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fended off Right-wing criticism of the US-backed “road map” to peace with the Palestinians today as the two sides prepared for a summit with US President George W. Bush.

One day after Israel’s Cabinet backed the plan despite Right-wing opposition, US officials said Bush planned to meet Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas next week, possibly in Jordan’s Red Sea port city of Aqaba.

The officials said Bush may also hold separate talks with other Arab leaders, with the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh a possible venue. Sharon and Abbas are expected to meet before then to discuss the road map.

Bush’s attendance at a summit would underscore his personal commitment to securing Israeli-Palestinian peace following the US-led war on Iraq that angered many people in the Arab world. He hopes to ensure the most ambitious West Asian blueprint in two years gets off the ground after pressuring Sharon and his Cabinet into accepting it, albeit with reservations. The Palestinians backed the initiative last month.

Defending the plan at a stormy meeting with legislators of his Right-wing Likud party, Sharon said neither side would gain if Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip forever. Israel seized the territories in the 1967 West Asia war.

“I want to say clearly I will do everything to reach a political arrangement because I think it’s important for Israel,” Sharon said. “We don’t like the word, but this is occupation. To keep 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is bad for Israel and the Palestinians.”

A long-time supporter of building Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, he found himself defending a plan whose initial phase requires Israel to freeze settlement expansion and dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001. Many Likud members criticised the Cabinet’s endorsement of the plan, which outlines reciprocal steps leading to the establishment of Palestinian state by 2005. Sharon has reservations about the plan and won a US promise last week to address those concerns while the road map is being implemented. Washington ruled out changing the plan drafted with the UN, EU and Russia.

Sharon assured one lawmaker from a West Bank settlement that homes would continue to be built in the community despite the road map’s call for a blanket construction freeze.

“You can build for your children and grandchildren and I hope for your great-grandchildren,” he said, asked about “natural growth” — housing to accommodate expanding settler families. The peace plan specifically bans “natural growth”.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat said he welcomed Israel’s endorsement of the road map “but no doubt the 12 reservations they have placed on it raises question marks about this acceptance”.

Initial confidence-building steps in the road map aimed at ending 32 months of violence and loosening Israel's military grip on the Palestinians seemed likely to await a Bush summit.

“We think it is very important that the President of the US is coming to our region to move us forward,” Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom said at a meeting in Greece.

Syria minister

Foreign ministers of long-time bitter foes Syria and Israel attended a meeting of the so-called Euro-Mediterranean group today in what diplomats said was a positive sign for West Asian peacemaking.

Syrian foreign minister Farouq al-Shara and Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom joined EU ministers by a swimming pool at one stage, and even though they did not speak or come close to each other their presence triggered a buzz of excitement.

It was the first time in three years Syria had sent its foreign minister to a non-UN meeting attended by Israel and the gathering took place as momentum built up behind a “road map” for West Asian peace. “It is a sign that things are moving,” EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said at the meeting in the seaside resort of Heraklion on the Greek island of Crete.

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