WASHINGTON — The White House decision to side with Israel on the issues of Palestinian refugees and West Bank settlements is producing an international backlash that could undermine efforts to implement Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, diplomats and Middle East experts said this week.
American officials have been urging Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the European Union to help implement Sharon’s plan by preparing a Palestinian leadership to take over Gaza after Israel withdraws its troops and settlers. Diplomats and observers said, however, that these efforts to build international support were complicated by the Bush administration’s unilateral negotiations with Sharon. They pointed to President Bush’s public declaration last week, which was interpreted widely as stating that Israel would keep some portions of the West Bank and that Palestinian refugees would not be allowed to resettle inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
The E.U.’s external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, said Wednesday that European nations would require firm assurances from Israel before pledging reconstruction aid to Gaza. Egyptian and Palestinian officials went even further this week, openly threatening not to cooperate in the disengagement planning.
“It is not clear what [Egypt] will do now,” an Egyptian diplomat told the Forward. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
The diplomat, who asked not to be identified, indicated that his country could help advance the Sharon plan only if the Palestinians decided to cooperate.
Senior Palestinian officials, meanwhile, were saying this week that they are considering what would amount to a boycott of the Israeli plan.
While Sharon has publicly stated that he is not banking on Palestinian cooperation, Israeli and American planners have been counting on European, Palestinian and Arab involvement to ensure a smooth transition.
“It’s possible to get out of Gaza and dismantle settlements unilaterally,” said Judith Kipper, a Middle East analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations. “What’s important though, is that there is somebody to take over in Gaza — someone you can work with.”
Israeli and American officials have said that they are looking to European governments to play a significant role in rehabilitating the Palestinian economy and reforming the political process in Gaza. In addition, American and Israeli officials are known to have welcomed recent efforts by British and Egyptian intelligence officials to create a viable Palestinian security force there.
Beyond security, many observers say, Palestinian cooperation is vital because Israel will continue to control an array of services in Gaza that will require coordination with a Palestinian partner.
Under Sharon’s plan Israel is expected to maintain control over Gaza’s electrical supply, telecommunications, imports, exports, duty collection and more. Israel also insists on controlling Gaza’s border with Egypt, its air and seaports, and its airspace.
Some Israeli observers say those continuing controls open the possibility of a new partnership between Israel and a responsible Palestinian leadership. If successful, the initiative could pave the way for further Israeli withdrawals in the West Bank, eventually opening the door to a two-state solution, supporters say.
Palestinian spokesmen, however, portray Israel’s continuing control as a recipe for repression. “That means that Gaza remains a prison, only with a little more room for Palestinians” than they had before Israel’s pullout, said Edward Abington, former U.S. consul general in East Jerusalem, who is now an adviser in Washington to the PLO.
Sharon’s plan faces a Likud party referendum May 2. It received endorsements this week from key Likud ministers, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat, and is expected to win party approval and then Cabinet ratification with ease.
Under the plan, Israel would dismantle all 20 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank. Allies say Sharon privately sees the plan as a first step toward eventual Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
Palestinians and other critics, however, fear that Sharon’s plan simply represents an effort to tighten Israel’s grip on the rest of the territories. “I am convinced that this is really a precursor to Sharon’s idea, which he has talked about for years, of a long-term interim solution, lasting 10 or 15 years,” Abington said. “He thinks that by getting rid of Gaza, by having the international community focus on trying to make Gaza work, the energy of the international community will just be sucked into making an unworkable situation work.”
He added: “Sharon thinks that by sealing off Gaza he has taken 1.3 million Palestinians out of the demographic equation,” which will both help him consolidate control over parts of the West Bank and undermine prospects for the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Palestinian leaders agree, arguing that Sharon is aiming to stall any future negotiations by creating chaos in Gaza, and they warn that they might refuse to fill the void created by an Israeli pullout. Their argument appears to be that chaos might be preferable to the acceptance of what they see as an Israeli dictate.
European leaders, while critical of the Bush-Sharon agreement, appear set to work with Israel and America. A statement issued Monday by the E.U. foreign ministers, who were meeting in Ireland, said that Israel’s proposed withdrawal from Gaza “should be properly orchestrated with the international community.” The E.U. added that its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, would open negotiations with Israel, Egypt and the Palestinians over how to implement the disengagement plan.
Some European foreign ministers were sharply critical of the Bush administration for imposing the Sharon plan on Europe. “Peace and stability will only be achieved if the Europeans are respected as partners,” French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told reporters in Ireland.
A European diplomat in Washington this week accused the White House of shoving Israel’s disengagement plan down the international community’s throat, while expecting the Europeans to carry out the difficult task of “delivering” a credible Palestinian counterpart, even as Israel continues its campaign of assassinating Palestinian leaders.
European distress, the diplomat said, was not based only on America’s endorsement of Israel’s positions on “final-status” issues. Europeans were also dismayed that Bush gave sweeping concessions to Sharon before the prime minister had taken any concrete action. Sharon, the diplomat pointed out, has dragged his feet when it comes to removing illegal outposts in the West Bank and freezing construction in Jewish settlements, as required in previous agreements.
International resentment of the Sharon-Bush agreement “would obviously make it difficult to secure cooperation,” said David Makovsky, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian peace with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “One could just hope that with time, cooler heads would prevail.”
This seems to be the administration’s hope, as well. In the week following Sharon’s visit to Washington, senior administration officials were urging foreign diplomats and reporters not to focus on Bush’s comments on borders and Palestinian refugees. Instead, administration officials say, the key point is that Sharon — widely seen as a patron of the settlement movement — is vowing to dismantle all the Jewish settlements in Gaza and four more in the West Bank.
In addition, administration officials pointed out, the Bush-Sharon agreement commits Sharon to carrying out most of Israel’s obligations under the U.S.-sponsored peace plan known as the road map, which has been stalled for months. Whether the Palestinians reciprocate or not, the administration argues, the Israeli occupation of Gaza will be virtually over, and conditions in the West Bank will improve.
Diplomats in Washington predict that this will be the main tack adopted by Secretary of State Colin Powell, when he meets next week with his colleagues in the so-called Middle East Quartet — the United Nations, the E.U., Russia and America — to seek their help in implementing Sharon’s plan.
Most observers predicted that Powell would face an uphill battle — complicated, some said, by international distrust over U.S. policy in Iraq.
“There is a very strong perception,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, that “the U.S. has sold out to Sharon.”