White House Pressures Sharon on Disengagement Plan

By Ori Nir

Published May 14, 2004, issue of May 14, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — Even as he struggles for his political survival, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is under pressure from the Bush administration to push ahead with his disengagement plan and fulfill his other commitments to the White House.

Sharon has been scrambling to maintain support for the disengagement plan — which calls for a full pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank — since it was rejected by Likud voters May 2. Citing his need to win cabinet support for moving forward, the premier canceled his plans to visit Washington next week for the annual policy conference of Aipac, the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse.

Administration officials are insisting that Sharon’s plan be carried out in its entirety, but they have left the door open to a phased approach.

“It can be a process, but the goal has to be complete withdrawal,” said the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Satterfield, during the May 7 symposium at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think-tank. Satterfield warned that a failure to implement Sharon’s plan would doom the region to more violence. “If we don’t move forward, if we don’t seize this opportunity,” he said, “then I fear very much that the future will be very much like the past.”

According to Israeli press reports, in addition to pressing Sharon to implement the disengagement plan, the administration has given Sharon a May 14 deadline for submitting plans to dismantle illegal Jewish settlement outposts and remove several Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank.

These American demands come as new evidence emerges of vast government expenditures on the settlements in recent years. The state comptroller’s office issued a report last week showing that in the past three years, the housing ministry spent almost $6.5 million on illegal settlement construction in the West Bank — with half the sum going to outposts that the Israeli government has promised to remove.

Israeli officials said that Sharon is working to deliver quickly on his pledges regarding West Bank outposts and checkpoints. At the same time, they said, Sharon was attempting to revise his disengagement plan to win over party and cabinet members.

But Sharon’s own national security adviser, Giora Eiland, in Washington last week, warned that the disengagement plan could be dead.

“Frankly, I don’t know what would be the political solution that would enable [Sharon] to move forward [with the plan], if such a solution can be found,” Eiland said, during the Washington Institute symposium.

Eiland, the chief architect of the disengagement plan, has been authorized by Sharon to draft a new proposal. “No one knows now what the chances are that [the disengagement plan] would be implemented, at least in the near future,” Eiland said.

Eiland stunned participants at the symposium by suggesting that the creation of a Palestinian state may not be the best way to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a provocative address, Eiland also suggested that perhaps Israel should abandon the goal of signing a peace treaty with the Palestinians.

Eiland’s arguments seem to reflect the thinking behind a plan that he reportedly authored for a final status settlement with the Palestinians. According to reports in Israel’s two largest daily newspapers this week, the final-status plan envisions Palestinian autonomy — not statehood — in the West Bank, under Jordanian auspices, and in Gaza, under Egyptian auspices. Under the plan, Egypt would contribute a strip of land to the Palestinians from the Sinai desert, thereby tripling the size of Gaza, and receive, in return, a chunk of Israel’s Negev desert. Israel would grant Jordan access to the Mediterranean via an underground tunnel under Egyptian sovereignty linking Jordan to Sinai. The Palestinians would give up 10% of the West Bank to accommodate Israeli settlement blocs.

Eiland and his former deputy, Brigadier General Eival Giladi, all but confirmed the reports about the long-term plan. Giladi described the reported final-status plan as the “second layer” that will follow implementation of Sharon’s disengagement plan.

It was unclear to what degree Eiland has been speaking for his boss, but the remarks help highlight the difficult task facing Sharon as he struggles to satisfy the Bush administration and an Israeli public that supports the disengagement plan, while avoiding a full-scale revolt in his own party and right-wing cabinet.

Representatives of the so-called Middle East Quartet — a diplomatic alliance of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — issued a statement last week declaring that Sharon’s plan “must bring about a full Israeli withdrawal and a complete end of occupation in Gaza.” Both Israel and the United States have said that Sharon’s unilateral plan needs both diplomatic and financial support from the international community if it is to succeed.

Senior Bush administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, are traveling next week to Europe and the Middle East to make sure that Egypt, Jordan, America’s European allies and the Palestinians are still committed to helping Sharon implement his plan. In what will be the first high-level meeting between a senior American official and a Palestinian leader in many months, Rice is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei in Berlin on May 17. Qurei has said that he will present Rice with his own plan for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Realizing that Washington expects him to maintain momentum, Sharon told members of his cabinet Sunday that he intends to present a revised disengagement plan within three weeks. His statement triggered opposition. Right-wing members of the cabinet left the meeting to protest the discussion of a plan that was rejected by Likud voters.

The Israeli press quoted Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon’s chief Likud rival, as belittling Sharon’s efforts. “A political plan is not a pair of socks that you change every day or two,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying.

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