Sharon seeks Bush support for Gaza plan to silence critics

Special to World
Thursday, March 18, 2004

JERUSALEM 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 withdrawal.

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 termed 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 briefers.

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.

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