President George W. Bush has given visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broad support on key issues, backing off from overt criticism of a West Bank security fence and disappointing Palestinians in the process.
Sharon, who was to meet Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday morning before flying home, promised Bush that he would make sure to minimize suffering to Palestinians through whose lands the fence will run.
Last week, Bush hosted Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and said the partially built barrier, which in some places cuts deeply into Palestinian territory and divides farms, was not helpful to peace efforts.
On Tuesday, Sharon argued that the fence was essential to stop Palestinian bombers and gunmen from slipping into Israel to carry out attacks. He said construction would go on.
Bush echoed Sharon's call for Abbas to break up Palestinian militant groups so they no longer posed a threat to Israelis. If that were done, he added, the fence could become redundant.
"I would hope in the longer term that the fence would be irrelevant," Bush said. "The fence is a sensitive issue. I understand that."
Sharon made a veiled allusion to the issue on arrival at the White House and signed the visitors' book.
"True friendship among allies can overcome every obstacle," he wrote. "No barrier can separate nations and leaders committed to peace, liberty and security."
Bush said Israel must consider the consequences of its actions on the peace process, but Israeli and US officials said the comment was a general one, not linked to any specific issue.
Palestinians were unsettled by Tuesday's White House talks.
"I had hoped that Bush would stand there next to Sharon and tell him stop it, stop building the wall," Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat said in Jerusalem.
In Gaza, Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi said Bush's remarks showed that Abbas had failed to win US acceptance of the Palestinian position in his trip to Washington.
"The Bush statement reflects the total bias of the US in favor of the Zionist enemy," Rantisi said, "and it reflects also the failure of Prime Minister Abbas's visit."