The United States has rejected an Israeli request for
the right to invade the Gaza Strip following a unilateral withdrawal.
U.S. officials said the Bush administration refused to approve Israel's
right to invade the Gaza Strip should the area be used as a staging ground
for Palestinian attacks against the Jewish state. They said Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon sought a written commitment by President George Bush that the
United States would understand such a military response in any Israeli
effort to halt Palestinian attacks from the Gaza Strip.
Sharon, who met Bush on Wednesday, sought the inclusion of a U.S.
understanding for massive Israeli military retaliation as part of the
president's letter on the Israeli plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and
parts of the West Bank. Instead, Bush agreed to reaffirm U.S. support for
Israel's right of self-defense. On Wednesday, Bush and Sharon exchanged
letters regarding the Israeli withdrawal plan.
"It doesn't talk about a right to go back in [Gaza]," a senior
administration official said of the Bush letter. "So what our hope is, that
we can, working with states in the region, help the Palestinian institutions
to take responsibility for security and to fight terror, because that's
what's called for them to do in the roadmap and that will obviate all the
rest of the discussion."
Bush's letter said the United States would lead the effort to improve
Palestinian Authority security forces and dismantle organizations deemed
terrorist. The letter said Washington would be aided by such Arab states as
Egypt and Jordan to "build the capacity and will of Palestinian institutions
to fight terrorism, dismantle terrorist organizations, and prevent the areas
from which Israel has withdrawn from posing a threat that would have to be
addressed by any other means."
Officials said Bush resisted Sharon's requests for specific commitments
on such issues as the Palestinian refugee demand to return to their homes in
what is now Israel, the establishment of Israeli communities in the West
Bank and Israel's right to retaliate against Palestinian attacks. They said
the State Department helped revise the Bush letter to avoid long-term or
specific U.S. commitments that would affect the so-called roadmap, an
international plan that calls for the establishment of a permanent
Palestinian state in 2005.
"For about two-plus years we've made little progress," the senior
official said. "And what the president is trying to do is seize on a
decision that Sharon is making for his own reasons and, indeed, is taking
steps that are called for by the Israelis in the roadmap in some of the
later phases, he's prepared to do those now. There are no additional
obligations imposed on the Palestinians. The only obligations that are
mentioned are those that exist in the roadmap."
U.S. officials said the administration has agreed that Israel will
continue to patrol the air space over the Gaza Strip as well as its coastal
waters. They said Israel will also continue to maintain control over the
air space and land passages of both the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
"The United States understands that after Israel withdraws from Gaza
and/or parts of the West Bank, and pending agreements on other arrangements,
existing arrangements regarding control of airspace, territorial waters, and
land passages of the West Bank and Gaza will continue," the Bush letter
But the U.S. recognition of the Israeli control would be temporary and
conditional, the officials said. They said Israeli control over the air
space and waters around Palestinian areas would last until the PA restores
security and eliminates insurgency groups.
"What the president's policy has done has gotten the Israeli prime
minister to abandon settlements, abandon settlements and disengage and
withdraw from territory," the senior administration official said. "The main
benefit is that a Likud government of Israel is going to withdraw from
settlements. Israel has not withdrawn from a settlement since 1967. This is
therefore going to be a very big deal."
Bush said Sharon's plan for unilateral withdrawal would not include the
entire Gaza Strip. The Bush letter said "Israel would withdraw certain
military installations and all settlements from Gaza, and withdraw certain
military installations and settlements in the West Bank."
The administration envisions a scenario in which Sharon's right-wing
partners would bolt the coalition, paving the way for the participation of
the Labor Party. Officials said such an arrangement would ensure that Sharon
would implement the unilateral withdrawal, which they termed a precedent for
the Jewish state.
"There's a great deal of suspicion of Sharon," the senior administration
official said. "That's a fact. In a month this coalition government will
fall and will be replaced with a different coalition with Labor in it.
Palestinians are more comfortable with that."
For his part, Sharon's letter to Bush commits Israel to the roadmap for
Palestinian state "as the only avenue through which an agreement can be
reached. We believe that this formula is the only viable one."
The Sharon letter to Bush also said Israel intends to "relocate military
installations and all Israeli villages and towns in the Gaza Strip, as well
as other military installations and a small number of villages in Samaria."
The letter said the security fence being constructed by Israel is a
temporary barrier that will "not prejudice any final status issues including
final borders," and the fence's route will take into account the impact on
"Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities."
Sharon relayed yet another letter that detailed Israeli steps to fulfill
its commitments to the United States under the roadmap. That letter was not
released, but a senior official said the Israeli document detailed the route
of the security fence, the removal of unauthorized outposts in the West Bank
and the release of Palestinian assets and funds.
On Thursday, Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazouz ordered government
ministries to halt funding to Israeli communities in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip. Officials said Mazouz's directive was meant to stop the funding of
unauthorized Israeli outposts in the West Bank by regional Israeli