Bush Says World Owes
Israel's Sharon A 'Thank You'

By Adam Entous

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- President Bush on Wednesday rejected international condemnation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and said world leaders owed him a "thank you" for his plans for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
In addition to backing Sharon's Gaza pullout plan in a historic U.S. policy shift, diplomatic sources said Bush and Sharon had settled most of their differences over Israel's barrier in the West Bank, once derided by the U.S. president as "a wall snaking through" Palestinian areas and a threat to peace efforts.
The shift came after Sharon agreed to modify the route of the barrier in certain areas to address U.S. concerns it intruded too deeply into Palestinian areas. "The fence is no longer an issue," a diplomatic source said.
Speaking to newspaper editors in Washington, Bush blasted the Palestinian leadership as having "failed the people, year after year after year" by not preventing terrorism against the Jewish state.
Bush sparked a backlash in the Arab world last week by endorsing Israel's right to hold on to some West Bank settlements on land captured in the 1967 Middle East War.
He also said a right of return by Palestinian refugees to Israel was unrealistic.
"Ariel Sharon came to America, and he stood up with me and he said, 'We are pulling out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank,"' Bush told a newspaper conference in Washington.
In "my judgment, the whole world should have said, 'Thank you, Ariel. Now we have a chance to begin the construction of a peaceful Palestinian state,"' Bush added.
Lamenting the response to Sharon's initiatives, Bush said: "Yes, there was kind of silence, wasn't there? Because the responsibility is hard."
Bush's support for Sharon may have gone over well with conservative and Jewish voters in the U.S. presidential election, but it inflamed the Arab world.
This week, Jordan's King Abdullah abruptly postponed a scheduled meeting with Bush at the White House because of concerns over the U.S. stance on the peace process.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in comments published on Tuesday, warned that Arabs in the Middle East hate the United States more than ever following the invasion of Iraq and Israel's assassination of two leaders of the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, also warned that Washington's credibility in the region could be hurt.
But after talks with White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Bandar said he was assured that "all final status issues between the Palestinians and Israelis must be kept exactly that -- final status issues and negotiated between the parties."
Bush urged world leaders to seize the moment to bridge their differences.
"It's hard to be responsible for promoting freedom and peace when you're used to something else. If you don't have the aspirations of the people firmly embedded in your soul, it's hard to take a gamble for peace," Bush said.
"Now's the time for the world to step up and take advantage of this opportunity, and help to build a Palestinian state that's committed to the principles of individual rights and rule of law and fairness and justice, so the Palestinian people have a chance to grow a peaceful state and so Israel has a partner in peace, not a launching pad of terrorist attacks on her border," Bush added.
Like a democratic Iraq, Bush said, he believes "a free Palestinian state will be a major change agent for world peace."
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