White House Unclear About Sharon Plan

By Ori Nir

Published February 27, 2004, issue of February 27, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — Bush administration officials remain confused and divided over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan, even after high-level talks with Israeli leaders last week.

Three Bush advisers — White House aides Steven Hadley and Elliot Abrams, and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns — returned to Washington without a clear understanding of the prime minister’s intentions after meeting with Sharon and his advisors in Israel, according to American and Israeli sources. Several of Sharon’s top aides are scheduled to visit Washington next week in an effort to explain to a befuddled Bush administration how their boss intends to implement his unilateral separation plan.

Part of the problem is that, as Israeli press reports have indicated, the Israeli prime minister himself has not yet finalized his strategy, and for that reason was short on details when meeting with the senior American officials last week. It is unclear how many more details Sharon’s two envoys — his chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, and his national security adviser, Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland — will be able to share with their U.S. hosts next week.

Sharon reportedly has not yet decided on basic questions regarding his initiative, such as whether he will dismantle all or only some Israeli civilian settlements in Gaza, whether Israeli troops will remain after civilians leave and whether the initiative will include any significant withdrawal from the West Bank in the foreseeable future. Addressing a forum of Knesset members from his Likud party on Monday, Sharon said he does not intend to give the Bush administration full details of the plan even during an expected visit to Washington to meet directly with the president late next month.

Given the information gaps, administration officials are skeptical of Sharon’s initiative, according to well-placed sources. Although the White House is willing to work with the Israeli leader on implementing his plan, many officials are warning internally of potential pitfalls in Sharon’s unilateral approach, the sources said. “There is a growing sense in the State Department, and to an extent also in the National Security Council, that Sharon may be playing games and talking about possible future actions to avoid immediate actions” that are prescribed by the president’s “road map” to peace, said a former American diplomat who routinely talks with senior administration officials.

Administration officials reportedly are annoyed that Israel did not act last year to dismantle nearly 70 so-called unauthorized settlement outposts as mandated under the terms of the road map. Israeli troops dismantled a smaller number, and many of them were quickly reestablished. Israel has said it was not required to complete the removal until after the Palestinians carried out their security obligations under the road map, but the administration has never publicly accepted Israel’s interpretation of the timing. According to Israeli press reports, this disagreement is a key reason that Sharon has not been able to obtain a firm date for a White House visit.

Administration officials want to make sure that Sharon’s new plan does not preempt or prejudge the road map. They also do not want settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip to be resettled in the West Bank, nor do they want a Gaza withdrawal to serve as a pretext to bolster settlement activity in the West Bank, sources said.

Some administration officials, particularly in the State Department, are raising strong opposition to Sharon’s unilateral approach. Such a course, administration officials are warning in internal discussions, is bound to significantly weaken the Palestinian Authority and strengthen its militant Islamic opposition. Sharon’s approach “is a disincentive to negotiations and an incentive to violence,” said a former U.S. diplomat, echoing the concerns of his former colleagues.

Some Middle East specialists at the State Department are arguing that America should not put itself in a position of encouraging Sharon to act unilaterally, but these officials have been overruled, mainly by the National Security Council, according to both American and Israeli sources. “How can the administration oppose steps that involve uprooting settlements, and may lead to a full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip?” a pro-Israel lobbyist in Washington asked rhetorically.

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