| Mahmoud Abbas (left) and Ariel Sharon shake hands as George W. Bush looks on at King Abdullah’s palace in Aqaba. (AFP)
Aqaba, June 4 (Reuters): President George W. Bush won an Israeli pledge to begin to uproot some settlement outposts in the West Bank and a Palestinian call to end armed struggle for a state at a landmark summit today.
The promises from Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas set in motion a US-backed “road map” for peace and Palestinian statehood, cementing Bush’s new role as chief mediator in the conflict.
“Great hope and change is coming to the Middle East,” Bush said before the two prime ministers shook hands for the first time in public at the three-way summit in the Jordanian Red Sea port city of Aqaba.
“All sides have made important commitments and the United States will strive to see these commitments fulfilled,” Bush said after meeting Sharon and Abbas.
In closing speeches at a palace overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba, Sharon and Abbas said they both envisioned a time when Israeli and Palestinian states would live side by side in peace.
But key questions remained over whether Abbas would be able to make good on his vows to persuade militants to stop attacking Israelis in a 32-month-old Palestinian uprising for statehood.
“We will never be ready to lay down arms until the liberation of the last centimetre of the land of Palestine,” Hamas official Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi said. Islamic Jihad, another group sworn to Israel’s destruction, followed suit.
The Palestinians have also raised doubts about Sharon’s commitment to a two-state solution and taking the politically risky move of dismantling settlements whose establishment he has long championed.
Several thousand people gathered in Jerusalem this evening to express opposition to giving up settlements. One poster read: “No to giving them a Palestinian state.” Another declared: “Palestinian state — disaster for the Israeli state.”
The road map charts the creation of a Palestinian state in 2005 after Israel and the Palestinians complete a series of reciprocal confidence-building steps that include a freeze on Jewish settlement expansion.
In his statement to cameras as Bush, Abbas and host King Abdullah of Jordan stood beside him at separate lecterns, Sharon said: “I want to reiterate that Israel is a society governed by the rule of law.... Thus, we will begin immediately to evacuate unauthorised outposts.”
Sharon was referring to mainly sparsely populated hilltop settlements established without Israeli government permission in the West Bank after March 2001, when Sharon came to power, and which the road map mandates must be scrapped.
He did not say how many outposts — there are an estimated 60 — would be uprooted, a move that will anger far Right members of his ruling coalition. “We can also reassure our Palestinian partners that we understand the importance of territorial contiguity in the West Bank for a viable Palestinian state,” Sharon said in remarks that could suggest that some long-established settlements might be evacuated as part of a permanent peace accord.
The international community views as illegal all the settlements Israel planted on land it seized in the 1967 West Asia war. Israel disputes this.
Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath described as unprecedented Sharon’s “very clear commitment and recognition of an independent Palestinian state and very clear talk of ending settlement activity”.
In comments likely to please Sharon and Bush, Abbas pledged in his statement to exert “full efforts” to end “the militarisation” of the uprising that began in September 2000. “The armed Intifada must end and we must resort to peaceful means to achieve our goals,” Abbas said.