Bush rejects Israeli bid to invade Gaza

Special to World
Friday, April 16, 2004

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institutions to fight terrorism, dismantle terrorist organizations, and prevent the areas from which Israel has withdrawn from posing a threat that would have to be addressed by any other means."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 said.

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 a 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 authorities.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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