Pentagon's Wolfowitz, Feith pushed for Gaza pullout

Monday, June 7, 2004

TEL AVIV The U.S. Defense Department was recruited in the Bush administration's effort to press Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials said senior Pentagon representatives urged their Israeli counterparts to press the Cabinet to approve Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The officials said the issue was raised several times over the last month, including during an annual U.S-Israeli strategic cooperation meeting in Tel Aviv this week.

In one case, officials said, Defense Undersecretary Doug Feith pressed Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to ensure government passage of the withdrawal plan. Feith, officials said, asked Mofaz how long the Cabinet would debate Sharon's proposal.

Mofaz was said to have responded that Sharon's plan remained opposed by a large portion of the Cabinet. The defense minister said Sharon was spending most of his time trying to win a Cabinet majority before submitting his plan to a vote, Middle East Newsline reported.

"That's the price for democracy," Mofaz was quoted as telling Feith. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has also raised Sharon's withdrawal plan during his talks with senior Israeli officials over the last few weeks, officials said. They said Wolfowitz stressed the U.S. interest in seeing this plan implemented as a stabilizing factor in the Middle East and for U.S. strategy in Iraq.

[On Friday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to fire two ministers of his right-wing coalition partner who have opposed the withdrawal plan.

Sharon's intent came in wake of a breakdown in negotiations to win agreement from his Likud and coalition partners for the withdrawal plan.]

Officials said they could not determine whether the Pentagon interest in an Israeli withdrawal was part of U.S. strategic considerations in the Middle East, or a warning that Israel's failure to implement the Sharon plan would result in a reduction in U.S. defense cooperation with Israel. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, has been regarded as one of the closest senior U.S. officials to Sharon.

During his visit to Israel, Feith also met Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon. Officials said Sharon's withdrawal plan was a major issue for discussion.

On May 31, Israel and the United States concluded a two-day strategic session as part of the annual Defense Policy Advisory Group. The Israeli side was headed by Defense Ministry director-general Amos Yaron. Feith headed the U.S. delegation.

Officials said the discussions by the plenum focused on threat assessments in the Middle East, Israel's military posture, the Israeli-Palestinian war and the war in Iraq. The DPAG also meets in smaller forums throughout the year.

"The meeting saw the discussion of strategic issues of common interest and current bilateral issues," an Israeli Defense Ministry statement said.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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