Sharon Faces American Diplomatic Chill

By Ori Nir

Published July 09, 2004, issue of July 09, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — In a sign of what could be an emerging chill in U.S.-Israeli diplomacy, the Bush administration is expressing disappointment with the slow pace at which Israel’s government is dismantling illegal outposts in the West Bank. The administration also is rejecting an Israeli demand that international financial aid to the Palestinian Authority be conditioned on an end to Palestinian terrorism, and is reacting coldly to Israel’s objections to an Egyptian-brokered Palestinian ceasefire.

A series of differences between Prime Minister Sharon’s government and the Bush administration emerged this week during a visit by Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, to Washington.

At the heart of the differences, diplomatic sources said, is an American sense that Sharon’s government is not doing enough to create a stable environment in Gaza as it prepares to withdraw from the strip, and an Israeli sense that the United States is giving in to Arab and European pressure to turn an Israeli unilateral move into a bilateral, or even a multilateral, one.

“They are trying to turn this into a bilateral process that brings in Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. We resent that,” an Israeli diplomat told the Forward. “We came up with the disengagement plan because we realized that there was no [Palestinian] partner.”

American officials said in private conversations in recent months that the only way to ensure that the Israeli withdrawal plan succeeds is to turn it from a unilateral move into a multilateral effort that brings in Egypt, Jordan and the international community in an effort to empower a reformed Palestinian Authority. As a result, the PA would be able to fight terrorists and be deemed credible to negotiate.

Israel, however, rejects the two fundamental premises of this approach, according to Israeli diplomats. First, it is only willing to coordinate its unilateral steps with the Palestinians and with third parties, not to open them to negotiation. Second, it objects to empowering the P.A. as long as the authority has not taken actions to combat terrorism.

These differing approaches to implementing Sharon’s disengagement plan formed the background of Shalom’s meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday.

Powell said at a press availability afterward that the United States had “some disappointment” with the pace at which Israel was dismantling unauthorized Jewish settlements in the West Bank. His discussion with Shalom on these illegal “outposts,” Powell said, was “open and candid” — terms that typically denote severity in diplomatic-speak. Israel says it has removed 81 such outposts and that only 28 remain on the ground. Of them, 12 soon will be evacuated and the removal of the other 16 was halted pending court discussions. These numbers are challenged by Peace Now, an Israeli group opposed to Israel’s settlements in the territories, which contends that 53 outposts still must be dismantled.

Powell, according to Israeli diplomats, was not supportive of Shalom’s request that the international community use the financial aid it gives to the P.A. — almost $1 billion annually in the past few years, more than half of the PA’s annual budget — as leverage to make the P.A. fight terrorism. Shalom told reporters after his meeting with Powell that in Israel’s view, “it is unreasonable” that the Palestinians siphon such large amounts of money from the international community while launching rockets at Israeli civilian targets. Last week a Kassam improvised rocket launched from Gaza to the southern town of Sderot killed two Israelis, including a 4-year-old.

Powell reportedly was cold to Shalom’s statement that Israel opposes a Palestinian ceasefire in Gaza. Israel thinks a truce will serve terrorists as an opportunity to re-arm. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is demanding a ceasefire as a condition for sending military advisers to train Palestinian security forces, American and Egyptian sources said. Sources also said Egypt doesn’t want to send its advisers only to have them caught in the crossfire between Palestinian factions or between Israelis and Palestinians. Egyptian envoy Omar Suleiman reportedly asked that Israel bolster a Palestinian ceasefire — once it is achieved — by halting its assassinations of Palestinian leaders and its incursions into Gaza. Israeli officials allegedly rejected the request.

Shalom had two more requests that Powell did not endorse: that the United States veto any United Nations Security Council resolution critical of Israel’s West Bank separation fence, and that the United States oppose a Security Council resolution endorsing Sharon’s disengagement plan. Shalom was asked why the international body shouldn’t support an official Israeli policy. “We don’t think that the Security Council should pass any resolution pertaining to an internal, unilateral Israeli measure,” he answered.

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