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
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
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."