US weighs Israel's pullout plan

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is seeking support for 'disengagement' in meeting with Bush Wednesday.

When President Bush meets with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Wednesday, the two leaders will probably find they have a few things in common. Both men are facing credibility crises that will make or break their survival in office, and are keen to broker any breakthrough that might steer them out of troubled water.

The Israeli leader arrived in Washington Tuesday after clarifying for the first time his vision of "disengagement": a withdrawal from all or most of the 17 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, and eventually, a pullback from some parts of the West Bank. Mr. Sharon also outlined which areas of Jewish settlement in the West Bank that Israel would keep and eventually annex, noting six settlements in particular: Ariel, in the northern West Bank; Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, the Etzion bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem; Givat Zeev to the north of Jerusalem, and the Jewish settlements in Hebron and nearby Kiryat Arba.

The Bush administration has been cool to Sharon's idea of removing Israeli troops and trappings of governance from many - but not all -Palestinian population centers. Inherent in the disengagement plan is Sharon's central argument that Israel has no reliable Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate a settlement, and that Palestinian aspirations of independent statehood might be put indefinitely on hold.

That makes it unclear whether there is real room for Sharon's approach to mesh with Washington's road map for Middle East peace, which laid out goals for a two-state solution reached through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But the Bush administration will find itself hard-pressed, analysts say, to discourage Sharon from making withdrawals - something called for under the roadmap. And faced with spiraling chaos in Iraq, the White House may feel the need to latch onto any sign of progress in taming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Bush would like to be able to say that with this disengagement plan they have changed something in the Middle East which is likely to last," says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Report. Regime change in Iraq, resurrecting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and democratization in the wider Middle East have made up the three-pronged Bush administration approach to the region.

Weighing the response

Still, Mr. Susser warns, Bush needs to avoid being seen as falling into lockstep with Sharon, which could further diminish US standing in the Middle East and fuel Arab protests that Washington tilts too heavily in favor of Israel. While Sharon is asking for a letter which would acknowledge Israel's red lines, the Bush administration will most likely avoid many of the specifics Sharon is lobbying for during his visit. These include, according to various reports, recognition of some of the West Bank settlements as part of Israel, Israel's opposition to Palestinian demands to have a "right of return" for refugees from the 1948 war, and Israel's rejection of calls for a return to pre-1967 borders, which Israel views as indefensible.

"Bush has got to play this very carefully," Mr.Susser says. "He can't go too far with his support with Sharon, because it would alienate the Palestinians and the moderate Arab leaders, and he needs the Arab moderates' support in the Middle East to make it all work.

"The Americans will give some sort of statement that is vaguer than Sharon had hoped for, but Sharon will be able to use it to get support within the Likud, and the Arab moderates will be able to use it to their interest, too," says Susser.

Domestic pressures on Sharon

At home, Sharon is facing a multitude of problems and a nation on edge. The country's attorney general is weighing whether to indict him over an influence-peddling scandal. The morning's papers carried headlines of a foiled Palestinian plot to launch an "AIDS bomb" - suicide bombers carrying HIV-infected blood - in an Israeli city. And on May 2 Sharon will bring his disengagement plan to members of his own right-wing Likud party in a referendum. A nod of approval from the Bush administration would significantly bolster Sharon's chances of overcoming skepticism from party hawks.

The very concept of Sharon, architect of many of the post-1967 settlements, selling their evacuation to members of his Likud party would be momentous.

On the one hand, Sharon is trying to accommodate far-right demands by preserving Hebron, despite the continual friction with local Palestinian residents there and the fact that few Israelis dare step foot in the city. But on the other, upon his departure for the US, Sharon ordered the evacuation of five illegal settlement outpost in the West Bank. The move is aimed, in part, at showing the US and the Palestinians that Israel is prepared to take control of settlements and dismantle them if necessary.

Palestinians critical

But Palestinian leaders are not encouraged by the gesture. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said the Bush administration should not give Israel any assurances that would contradict US promises to support the creation of a Palestinian state.

"If anyone needs assurances, it's the Palestinians, not Israel," said Mr. Qurei. "We warn ... that there should not be promises made at the expense of our issues."

The settlements that would stay in place under Sharon's proposed plan are home to approximately 92,000 of the 220,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Dror Etkes, the head of Peace Now's Settlement Watch team, says that Sharon is aiming to give the Palestinians control of no more than 50 to 60 percent of the West Bank. That contrasts with earlier plans - as part of the Oslo Peace Accords reached over a decade ago - for more than 90 percent of the West Bank to come under the Palestinian Authority.

Further, the blocs of territory to be annexed, argues the Israeli left-wing group Peace Now, will stand in the way of leaving the Palestinians a contiguous piece of land on which to build a state.

"Sharon is not willing to give up Ariel, which is in the heart of the West Bank and if it remains, there will be no accord with the Palestinians," says Mr. Etkes. "Sharon will say it's only 7 percent, but you have to look which seven percent. It's a 7 percent which will make a mockery of a Palestinian state, because there will be no territorial continuity between them."

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