Sharon at work on new withdrawal plan

Special to World
Thursday, May 20, 2004

JERUSALEM Weeks after its rejection by his party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has drafted a new plan for unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Aides said Sharon's plan marks a scaled-down version of his first proposal for withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank. They said Sharon's latest proposal calls for a three-stage withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and an Israeli military presence along the Egyptian-Gaza border.

Under the Sharon plan, the first stage stipulates a withdrawal from Israeli communities regarded as isolated, such as Netsarim, south of Gaza Strip, and Morag, aides said. The second stage envisions withdrawal and dismantling of the Gush Katif settlement bloc. In the third stage, the remainder of Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip would be removed.

Sharon ordered his aides to draft a new plan within hours of the Likud Party's rejection of unilateral withdrawal by the party's rank and file on May 2. Aides said Sharon cited U.S. and European Union pressure on Israel to advance a withdrawal plan from the Gaza Strip.

At the same time, Sharon sent senior ministers and aides to Washington to brief the Bush administration of new efforts to promote the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert began a series of meetings with senior administration officials to discuss Sharon's intentions.

For their part, President George Bush and his senior advisers have ignored the Likud defeat of Sharon's plan. Israeli officials said the administration has demanded the dismantling of Israeli outposts in the West Bank deemed as unauthorized as well as preparations for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

On Monday, an Israeli military and security force of 2,000 combatants destroyed a building in the Mitzpeh Yizhar outpost. Israeli authorities have targeted another outpost, termed Givat HaRoeh, north of Ramallah, as being next in line for evacuation.

"The prime minister's plan is a bold, courageous step, that can bring us closer to the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security," Bush told the AIPAC convention in Washington on Tuesday. "The prime minister's decision has given the Palestinian people and the free world a chance to take bold steps of their own toward peace."

[Later, the State Department's counter-terror chief, Cofer Black, told AIPAC that Israel has been the most "stalwart" country to cooperate in the U.S.-led war against Al Qaida. Black said the U.S.-Israel Joint Counterterrorism Group, established in 1996, has become "an important part of our counterterrorism partnership."]

So far, Sharon has met most of the ministers in his Cabinet where he has encountered a mixed response. One of the ministers said Sharon's plan appears to stipulate the handover of all of the factories and public buildings in Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip to the United Nations or another international agency. He said Sharon also wants Israel to destroy all of the homes in those communities.

Aides said several Likud ministers warned that the new plan coming about two weeks after Sharon's first proposal was defeated by a 60-40 margin -- could break up the coalition government as well as the Likud. They said Sharon intends to submit the plan to the Cabinet by the end of May.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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