White House Is Cool to Settlement Plan

By Ori Nir

Published March 05, 2004, issue of March 05, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is rejecting Jerusalem’s demand for American approval of a plan to strengthen several key blocks of Jewish settlements in exchange for a complete Israeli pullback from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to fortify large blocks of Jewish settlements in the West Bank that Sharon envisions being annexed by Israel in the future, Israeli sources said. Sharon, one Israeli diplomat said, is asking that the Bush administration relax its opposition to Israeli development of what is widely referred to in Israel as “consensus settlements,” in particular Ma’ale Adomim, east of Jerusalem; Ariel, northeast of Tel Aviv, and the Etzion Block, south of Jerusalem.

Envoys of Sharon pressed the issue earlier this week in Washington, but failed to obtain an agreement during talks with senior advisers to President Bush about Israel’s unilateral disengagement plan. The administration, according to Israeli and American sources, is resisting any formal change in its longtime opposition to Jewish settlements in the territories.

The Israeli delegation, headed by Sharon’s bureau chief Dov Weisglass and National Security Council director Brig. Gen. Giora Eiland, spent five hours in the White House Monday, discussing details of Sharon’s plan with Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and a team of senior U.S. officials. The Israeli officials also met later with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“We are talking about a full [Israeli] evacuation of Gaza, maybe also of some remote settlements in the West Bank,” as well as a pullout of Israeli military forces from broad areas of the West Bank, said an Israeli diplomat. Still, he added, the administration refuses to budge on remaining settlements.

The Israeli delegation left Washington Tuesday without reaching an agreement with U.S. officials. The two sides did agree, however, to meet twice more before Sharon’s planned visit to Washington next month, sources said. In these meetings, the Israeli representatives will share more details of Sharon’s disengagement plan, which according to Israeli press reports is still a work in progress.

Sharon is also asking for the administration to maintain its support for Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority under its current leadership, Israeli diplomats said. Jerusalem fears that the administration might shift its position as Washington’s European allies increase their calls for an immediate resumption of negotiations between Sharon’s government and the Palestinian government of Ahmad Qurei.

The Bush administration, sources said, agrees that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a Palestinian Authority dominated by Yasser Arafat. The White House, however, does expect Israel to coordinate its moves with the Palestinian Authority to avoid creating power vacuums in the territories, to ensure orderly transfer of command, and to maintain the P.A.’s image as the sole legitimate government in the Palestinian areas. Washington is worried about the continuing erosion of the Palestinian Authority’s political and economic power, as well as its loss of popular support in the territories.

Israeli sources said that all measures taken by the Sharon government will be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority — even if they are decided upon unilaterally — and that any steps involving Israeli withdrawal from areas in Gaza along the Egyptian border will be coordinated with Cairo.

American officials see Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan as a bold move that may eventually help launch final status negotiations. They are concerned, however, that his “Gaza first” initiative will become “Gaza last” or “Gaza only,” which could actually damage long-term-peace efforts. They want to make sure that the plan will help pave the way for a viable Palestinian state, not block it, said Aaron Miller, who advised the last six secretaries of state on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and is now the President of Seeds of Peace, an organization promoting reconciliation between youth from societies in conflict.

Miller said that an American endorsement of Israeli efforts to consolidate its grip on specific settlement blocks would be “something that mortgages the future and ultimately will undermine any remaining prospect for a two-state solution.

“I think that is something no administration can be in a position to sanction,” Miller said. To approve such a step would mean, he added, “crossing a huge red line.” Miller also warned that the United States, by accepting an unqualified unilateral approach from Israel, would be “turning on its head a half a century of negotiations which have in fact — more often than not — resulted in improving the situation.” America’s challenge, he said, is to modify Israel’s one-sided initiative in a way that would encourage the Palestinians and Arab governments to come to the negotiating table.

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