FOLLOWING his meeting with Ariel Sharon on Monday, President Bush spoke with unaccustomed clarity on the subject of Jewish settlements constructed in Palestinian West Bank territory. Israel has obligations under the road map, he said in Mr Sharon's presence. The road map clearly says no expansion of setttlements. Mr Sharon responded by saying that Israel is committed to the road map's provisions but immediately went on to insist that plans for new housing to accommodate 30'000 people at the settlement of Malle Adumin near Jerusalem, should go ahead in due course. This plan, first made known about three weeks ago, is especially provocative; it is clearly designed to create a Greater Jerusalem area which would bar Palestinian access to East Jerusalem where there are many Arab neighbourhoods and, crucially, where the holy site known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Arabs as al-Haram-al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) is located.
It is difficult to understand how the Israeli prime minister can reconcile his two conflicting positions on the settlements provisions of the road map. A possible explanation may be found in his contention, repeated on Monday, that the road map is still not operative because the Palestinians have not done enough to control their militant groups. However the road map very clearly requires simultaneous action by each side.
Although Mr Bush's strong statement was welcome as far as it went, it lacked one important element: if Mr Sharon continues to play with words over the settlements, what sanctions will the United States bring to bear to persuade Israel that it cannot indefinitely put the goal of a two-state peace agreement at risk by its refusal to freeze the existing illegally-built setttlements and even to demolish some of them? America's extensive economic, military and moral backing is so vital to Israel that a warning of the withdrawal of even a small part of it should be enough to make Israel see sense.
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