U.S. underwhelmed by Sharon plan

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

The Bush administration appears unimpressed with the unilateral withdrawal plan of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Officials said Sharon, who has been named in a corruption scandal, wants to present details of the unilateral withdrawal plan to President George Bush in Washington in February. But they said White House aides have urged against such a move, saying the proposal does not merit Bush's personal attention. They said the White House has asked Sharon to complete the withdrawal plan before his planned visit to the United States.

Last week, Sharon's chief aide, Dov Weissglass, discussed the prime minister's withdrawal plan with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Middle East Newsline reported. Officials said Weissglass urged Ms. Rice to allow Sharon to discuss the plan with Bush in February as part of an effort to facilitate the establishment of an interim Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Privately, administration sources have assessed that Sharon's withdrawal plan is largely meant to ensure his political survival amid sagging polls and the prospect that he will be indicted for accepting bribes. The sources said the White House has cast doubts over Sharon's credibility in wake of what they assert was his failure to fulfill his pledge to dismantle unauthorized outposts in the West Bank in late 2003.

As a result, the administration has sought to focus its foreign policy on Iraq and the war on terrorism. Officials said they do not expect a diplomatic breakthrough in 2004 that will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Instead, officials said, the administration will try to keep a lid on the Israeli-Palestinian war while quietly trying to seek an internationally-sponsored arrangement that will lead to a Palestinian state in 2005. One proposal is for NATO to establish a peace-keeping force that will replace Israeli troops in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that would ensure stability in the region.

U.S. officials said the administration has heard details of Sharon's plan for an Israeli withdrawal from Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent meetings in Jerusalem and Washington. The officials said the plan calls for a limited withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in exchange for indefinite control over the rest of the territories captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The plan would also include the completion of a 730-kilometer security fence along and through the West Bank. Sharon's plan stresses that the fence would not represent a border between Israel and any future Palestinian state.

"It's not a plan we could support," an administration source said. "What we want is an Israeli-Palestinian engagement and agreement. It's as simple as that."

Still, the White House and State Department prefer that the Sharon government order an immediate evacuation of scores of unauthorized outposts in the West Bank and ease restrictions on Palestinian movement, officials said. Israel's military has dismantled several small uninhabited outposts, but has refrained from evacuating inhabited settlements.

"I believe a NATO peace-keeping mission may eventually be called upon to help secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace," Sen. Chuck Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and regarded as close to Bush, said. "The day may come when NATO troops monitor the birth of a Palestinian state. The time is not yet right for this development, but I believe we must begin to move our thinking, policies, and planning in that direction."

On Tuesday, two U.S. envoys began talks with Sharon and his aides regarding the Israeli withdrawal plan. U.S. ambassador John Wolf, appointed by Bush to oversee the implementation of the so-called roadmap plan, and Deputy Assistant Secretary David Satterfield were also expected to arrange a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials.

"My time here will be spent in discussing where the two sides are in fulfilling commitments that they made to and where the are in terms of steps envisioned by the road map," Wolf said. "Both sides need to continue to do more."

The two U.S. envoys were also scheduled to meet Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, the director of the Israeli National Security Council and chair of a panel to draft the unilateral withdrawal plan. Eiland's panel has drafted proposals for a military withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, evacuation of several thousand civilians as well as compensation for their relocation in either other parts of the West Bank or within the pre-1967 borders of Israel.

Jewish settlement leaders said they have been urged by Sharon's office to support a plan that would dismantle seven communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The communities said to have been listed for evacuation in Sharon's proposal included Kfar Darom, Netsarim and Morag in the Gaza Strip.

In the West Bank, the settlement leaders said, Sharon wants an agreement to dismantle Ganim and Kadim in the north and Sa-Nur and Homesh in the Ramallah area.

[On Wednesday, Palestinian sources said nine Palestinians were killed in an Israeli military operation south of Gaza City. The sources said five of those killed were insurgents from the Islamic Jihad group.]

The settlement leaders said an unidentified Sharon aide stressed to the settlement leaders that this was the minimum that the prime minister could present to Bush in their meeting next month. They said Sharon would be prepared to pledge that no other community in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be evacuated until a permanent settlement is reached with the Palestinians. Sharon has denied making such a offer.

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