Administration Pushes Disengagement Plan for Gaza

By Ori Nir

Published June 11, 2004, issue of June 11, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — Though skeptical about the reliability of the political process in Jerusalem, the Bush administration and its international partners are pushing hard for implementation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan after it was approved Sunday by his Cabinet.

The Bush administration reacted with guarded relief this week to the passage of Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlements from the Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank. In turn, pro-Israel activists were voicing their own sense of relief over what they viewed as the aversion of a crisis in American-Israeli relations.

Pro-Israel activists here were overtly embarrassed about the dynamics of the Israeli political system, which some characterized as dysfunctional, and concerned by the growing sense that Sharon’s credibility in Washington was eroding. Jewish activists now say they were told by administration officials that Sharon regained some of the considerable credit he had enjoyed at the White House by sacking the two National Union ministers, Benny Elon and Avigdor Lieberman, who were actively opposing the plan from inside Sharon’s coalition government.

In a sign of the shifting fortunes, the executive committee of the Anti-Defamation League this week passed a resolution enthusiastically endorsing the Sharon plan. Last week, in an interview with the Forward, the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, described Sharon’s inability to implement his plan as “very embarrassing.”

The White House, in a statement issued Monday, welcomed the Cabinet decision, hailing Sharon’s plan as “a courageous and historic step.” The administration urged “that practical preparatory work to implement the plan now proceed as rapidly as possible in Israel.”

While clearly encouraged by the Israeli Cabinet’s vote, administration officials, who were disappointed several times before when Sharon’s plan hit bumps on the road to government approval, voiced skepticism. A senior administration official, briefing reporters at Sea Island, Ga. — where President Bush hosted the leaders of the G-8 Group of Industrialized Nations — indicated that Washington is not sure whether the Sharon plan will in fact be implemented. Administration officials said that they consider the plan, as approved by the Israeli Cabinet, to be the same plan that President Bush signed on to in April. They also said that America now expects swift Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and international action to prepare for the implementation of the plan.

The goal, said State Department Spokesman Adam Ereli, is to address “the immediate and practical necessities of enabling the Palestinian Authority to assume and exercise its responsibilities” in the areas evacuated by Israel. That is also the objective — and the prospective outcome — of an “action plan” drafted by the United States and its “Quartet” partners, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. The draft, obtained by the Reuters news agency, assigns tasks to the United States, Europe, Egypt and Israel to prepare the ground for an orderly handover of the Gaza to an empowered Palestinian Authority.

Although Sharon’s disengagement plan was not on the agenda of the G-8 meeting was pervasive in discussions between world leaders and Arab leaders on the plans to reform the Arab world. Administration officials told reporters that the plan’s approval came at the right time to show reluctant Arab leaders that there is momentum toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The U.S. official who spoke to reporters at the G-8 meeting said that the administration rejected the notion that lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making should serve as a pretext for Arab governments to avoid introducing internal reforms. “Whether there is or is not the kind of rapid progress that we would like to see” on Sharon’s plan, the official said, “that should not provide an excuse” for political oppression in the Arab world.

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