Bush fears Sharon's pullback plan would destabilize Mideast

Monday, February 9, 2004

Administration sources said President George Bush has expressed concern to his aides that the plan drafted by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would damage U.S. interests in the Middle East.

They said the president was worried that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip would strengthen what he regards as a terror-ridden regime of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and could lead to the escalation of the conflict with Israel that would threaten the region as well as bolster the Sunni insurgency war in Iraq.

On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert briefed Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell on Israel's unilateral withdrawal plan, Middle East Newsline reported.

However, the administration has quietly counseled Israel to delay any unilateral withdrawal until late 2004. The sources said Bush would not have time for any high-profile Arab-Israeli peace until after the presidential elections in November.

At the same time, the administration has quietly urged the Palestinian Authority to end its war against Israel and eliminate insurgency groups as a key condition for the establishment of a Palestinian state. The sources said the White House has sent a message through British Prime Minister Tony Blair that Bush would resume his involvement in an Israeli-Palestinian settlement should the PA implement such a commitment.

But the administration has concluded that such a prospect remains slim. The sources said the National Security Council has assessed that the PA, including its new prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, would not take meaningful steps to stop such groups as the ruling Fatah movement, Hamas or Islamic Jihad as long as Arafat remains in power.

Olmert argued that Sharon's plan would facilitate Bush's vision of a Palestinian state and hoped that the president would agree to meet Sharon by the end of February.

"We see this as part of the implementation of the concept that is acceptable to us and America," Olmert said after meeting Cheney. "We see this as a way-station until we can reach agreement in the framework of negotiations with the Palestinians."

Administration sources said the National Security Council and the State Department would conduct reviews of Sharon's plan. They said Elliot Abrams, the head of the Middle East desk of the council, and Stephen Hadley would arrive in Israel next week for a briefing on the Israeli proposal. This would be followed by the visit to Washington by Sharon's chief aide, Dov Weisglass, of the first full draft of the Israeli plan.

The White House has so far refused to set a date for a summit between Bush and Sharon, the latter who is under police investigation related to a bribery case. Officials said Israel had pressed for such a meeting to take place in Washington in February, but that appears unlikely.

Bush has not referred to Sharon's plan in public. The sources said the president's major and virtually only foreign policy concern is the stabilization of Iraq and his pledge to install an Iraqi government by June 30, an effort threatened by the Sunni insurgency war.

"The liberation of Iraq removed a source of violence and instability from the Middle East," Bush said. "And the liberation of Iraq removed an enemy of this country and made America more secure. We will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins."

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