JERUSALEM ø Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been negotiating
with the White House over the extent of U.S. support for unilateral Israeli
withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials said Sharon's withdrawal plan has elicited positive
feedback from aides of President George Bush. But the White House has
refused to commit to formal U.S. support for Sharon's intention to withdraw
from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
The negotiations between Sharon's office and the White House focus on
the aftermath of an Israeli-U.S. summit in Washington planned over the next
two weeks. Officials said Sharon has appealed for Bush's support for the
prime minister's withdrawal plan.
"The prime minister wants President Bush to stand next to him on the
White House lawn and endorse the withdrawal plan without reservation," a
Sharon aide said. "It's a matter of a few sentences, but this could
determine the success of the plan."
Officials said Sharon has concluded that Bush's endorsement of an
Israeli unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank
would result in immediate approval from the Israeli electorate. They said
such U.S. support would force many of Sharon's Likud colleagues to end their
opposition to the plan.
[On Thursday, Israeli troops withdrew from the southern Gaza Strip town
of Rafah. Military sources said the operation failed in its mission to find
weapons tunnels that connected Rafah to neighboring Egypt.]
During his visit to Washington last week, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz
stressed in meetings with senior Bush administration officials that the
United States must support Sharon against recalcitrant ministers who oppose
the withdrawal plan. Sharon has refused to submit his plan to the Cabinet
out of concern that a majority of ministers would vote against unilateral
After months of hesitation, the Bush administration appears ready to
accept the principle of an Israeli unilateral withdrawal from territories
captured in the 1967 war. Sharon's aides said White House officials have
the prime ministers's plan "an historic opportunity" that could pave the way
for Bush's vision of a Palestinian state in 2005.
Next week, the director of the prime minister's office, Dov Weisglass,
will fly to Washington to meet National Security Adviser Condoleezza
Rice and other senior White House officials to prepare for an expected
Bush-Sharon meeting. Weisglass has been authorized to brief Bush's aides of
the unilateral withdrawal plan and help draft an announcement by the
president after his meeting with Sharon.
Weisglass also plans to seek U.S. diplomatic and financial support
for the Israeli withdrawal, officials said. So far, no date has been set for
the Bush-Sharon meeting, but officials said such dates as March 29 and April
2 have been discussed.
On Wednesday, Sharon was briefed by Israeli military chiefs regarding
their views of unilateral withdrawal. In the more than three-hour
meeting, the commanders outlined a plan for a withdrawal from the entire
Gaza Strip, with the exception of a military presence along the border with
Egypt and in the northern Gaza Strip.
Military chiefs were said to have urged Sharon to prevent the resumption
of operations at the Palestinian Authority airport in the southern Gaza
Strip and ensure Israeli supervision over the sea port in Gaza City. Cabinet
sources said Sharon appeared testy and repeatedly interrupted the military
Officials said Sharon has favored a withdrawal from the entire Gaza
Strip and the dismantling of 25 Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip in an
effort that would begin by July. The military chiefs said in their briefing
that the pullout could take until September 2005.