Since April, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled his Gaza Strip disengagement plan to President George W. Bush, the United States has depicted it as a major step toward peace that can catalyze a revival of negotiations and lead to the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.
"These are historic and courageous actions," the president said of the Sharon plan to evacuate all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four more in the northern West Bank. Mr. Sharon, Mr. Bush said, is "beginning to implement a vision that allows for contiguous territories so that a Palestinian state can emerge."
But now Sharon's senior adviser, Dov Weisglass, a key architect of the plan, is saying its intention is exactly the opposite: to avoid any peace negotiations with the Palestinians and to thwart the emergence of a Palestinian state. The stance contradicts the official US position as enunciated in the moribund "road map" peace plan, which envisions a viable Palestinian state at peace with a secure Israel. Mr. Weisglass's remarks raise the question of how and whether Washington can support both plans simultaneously.
"The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process," Weisglass told the newspaper Haaretz. "And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders, and Jerusalem. Effectively this whole package called the Palestinian state with all that it entails has been removed indefinitely from the agenda.... All of this with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both Houses of Congress."
Vice President Dick Cheney said in the debate Tuesday night that the Bush administration has endorsed the two state solution as the only way to solve the conflict. But he also said that Israel currently has no viable negotiating partner.
Bernard Reich, a George Washington University specialist who is close to administration thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says that while the Bush administration supports the disengagement policy, "we haven't gone on to the idea that this freezes everything else."
What may be happening, Mr. Reich adds, is notification through reliable spokesmen that Sharon intends to leave dealings on the thornier issue of the West Bank to later years and future Israeli governments.
In his remarks, Weisglass also said that Sharon's plan was formulated amid concern that the Geneva Initiative, a nongovernmental compromise between Israelis and Palestinians reached last year, had been gathering public support.
Weisglass's message aimed at winning over domestic right-wing opponents of the disengagement in Sharon's Likud party, says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report weekly. "He's trying to say that what we got from a right-wing viewpoint is the best deal Sharon could have gotten and that through the Gaza withdrawal we will retain most of the West Bank and not have a Palestinian state. The big problem is that this sounds very bad to everyone else."
Dovish Israeli legislator Zehava Galon says she was not surprised. "We knew all along that what Sharon wants is to deepen Israeli rule in the West Bank, perpetuate the occupation, and create noncontiguous Bantustans surrounded by settlements."
Ms. Galon added, however, that her Yahad party would continue to back the disengagement plan in the hope that it can persuade public opinion to expand it to include a dismantling of more settlements in the West Bank.
Palestinian local government minister Jamal Shobaki says of Weisglass's statement: "The problem is such behavior by Sharon gets clear American support. The world, including the US, believed the disengagement plan is going to be part of the road map while we know Sharon is implementing his own map."
Meanwhile, Israel continued a massive army operation in the northern Gaza Strip launched Sept. 28 with the stated intention of halting cross border rocket attacks, which killed two Israeli toddlers a week ago. AP quoted Palestinian medics as saying 75 Palestinians, including 30 civilians, have been killed.
Sharon's office issued a statement late Wednesday saying that Sharon remains committed to the road map but that Israel has no partner at present since the Palestinian side "continues to adhere to terrorism, violence, and incitement." It said the disengagement plan was issued to strengthen Israel's position "until a time when a Palestinian partner can be found."
But if Sharon's intention is to avoid negotiations with the Palestinians, he is likely to be disappointed, says Susser. "The disengagement plan sets off a process leading to domestic, international, and Palestinian pressure. The government will have to think very seriously about the two-state solution."
• Howard LaFranchi contributed.