CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon differed strongly and publicly Monday over the future of West Bank settlements under the U.S.-backed peace plan, underscoring the fragile nature of negotiations to end the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Bush condemned the expansion of Jewish settlements as a violation of the so-called road map plan for a two-state solution. But Sharon, who has proposed expanding a major settlement east of Jerusalem, said the development and others would be protected under any final agreement and remain part of Israel. The two leaders spoke after meeting for an hour and a half at Bush's ranch outside Crawford.
"I told the prime minister of my concern that Israel not undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations, or prejudice final status negotiations," Bush said after the meeting. "Therefore, Israel should remove unauthorized outposts and meet its road map obligations regarding settlements in the West Bank."
The impasse demonstrated that Bush and Sharon, despite a close alliance over the past four years, offer widely different interpretations of what the U.S.-supported peace plan means for settlements.
Backed by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, the blueprint envisions a series of reciprocal steps by the two sides that would culminate in Palestinian statehood. The plan requires that Israel dismantle offshoots of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and that the Palestinian Authority crack down on militant groups.
Bush views the two-state plan as key to his broader agenda of promoting political reforms in the Middle East. But many analysts say he must challenge Sharon on the settlement expansion to keep the road map on track and to build credibility with Palestinians as an even-handed broker.
Sharon is under fire from many in his own right-leaning Likud Party for his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. He is trying to mollify those critics by standing by the proposed expansion of a settlement east of Jerusalem called Maale Adumim.
The expansion, announced last month, has outraged Palestinians. They say it would cut off Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem from the West Bank, and significantly hinder north-south movement within the West Bank. Such a change, they say, would make it harder for Palestinians to build a free-standing state that is not carved into cantons by border crossings or tunnels.
Sharon refused Monday to concur with Bush's statement that the settlement's expansion violates the road map. Instead, the prime minister insisted that West Bank settlements would be protected throughout negotiations.
"It is the Israeli position that the major Israeli population centers will remain in Israel's hands under any future final status agreement with all related consequences," he said.
Both men offered some conciliatory language on other aspects of the plan.
Bush repeated the assurances given to Sharon in a letter a year ago that given the entrenched nature of many settlements, it was "unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."
That language had given Israelis the expectation that they would be able to maintain some major West Bank settlements. Sharon pledged to "fulfill my commitment" to remove unauthorized outposts, often rusty trailers positioned by settlers on bare West Bank hilltops.
But as Bush and Sharon spoke Monday, it was clear the two men -- while reiterating their friendship and mutual interest in ranching -- have different visions about how to attain Middle East peace.
Sharon, directing his remarks to television viewers back home, said in Hebrew that his Gaza pullout was the first step toward an end to the dispute with Palestinians, but that further steps under the road map would be possible only after the Palestinians eliminated violence.
"I hope that this stage will happen and that we will only move to the road map after this intervention by the Palestinians against terror," he said.
Sharon strongly promoted his Gaza withdrawal initiative, calling on the Palestinians to help and declaring it would "strengthen Israel, improve the quality of life for Israeli citizens, reduce the friction between us and the Palestinians and can pave the way towards the implementation of the road map."
Bush linked the road map to Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, making it clear that he hoped the pullout would build momentum for the peace plan. But Sharon took pains to portray the peace plan as a long-term approach, reflecting Israeli skepticism about the plan. He said a successful Gaza withdrawal by Israel, with the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority, would build confidence on both sides and clear the way for two states.