WASHINGTON — As they prepare for separate meetings with President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas are battling to secure White House endorsements of their conflicting positions on West Bank settlements.
Sharon, who will travel to Crawford, Texas, on April 11 for his first meeting at Bush’s private ranch, wants Bush to clarify and elaborate on his assurance, in writing in April 2004, that Israel should not be expected to withdraw from large settlement blocs in the West Bank as part of a final status deal with the Palestinians, Israeli diplomats said. Sharon is also seeking American approval for the continued construction in such Jewish settlements.
Sharon’s top adviser, Dov Weisglass, will meet with Bush’s top aides in Washington next week to hammer out understandings — possibly some public presidential comments — to be unveiled in Crawford.
Abbas, who is expected to meet Bush at the White House later this month, is seeking American and international commitments to impose a settlement freeze on Israel. He is also trying to solidify America’s traditional position opposing the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Before heading to Washington, Abbas will travel through Europe and the Arab world to rally critics of the American endorsement of Sharon’s plan to maintain large settlement blocs.
The two upcoming meetings are shining a light on the challenges facing the White House as it seeks to maintain support for Sharon, while also trying to help boost Abbas, said Aaron David Miller, former senior State Department adviser for Arab-Israeli negotiations.
Israel’s settlement activity is getting in the way of the administration’s second priority, said Miller, who now heads the Seeds of Peace youth organization, which brings together Arab and Israeli teenagers from the region.
But he added that the administration is not at the point where it would jeopardize a smooth Gaza withdrawal for the sake of asserting its opposition to settlement activity. The Bush administration is well aware of the limited support that Sharon has in his own Likud Party for the Gaza disengagement plan, and therefore “would do nothing to impede or make Sharon’s domestic difficulties more severe than they already are,” Miller said.
This concern over Sharon’s standing was evident last week when the administration rushed to extinguish an American-Israeli flare-up regarding settlements. Damage control was administered after two developments that angered Sharon.
First, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized harshly Israel’s decision to construct 3,500 more housing units in the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, northeast of Jerusalem. The construction would ultimately connect Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem through a planned land corridor known as E-1. Successive American administrations have strongly opposed the E-1 plan. The Bush administration has been inconsistent, at times pushing to stop the construction plan and at other times turning a blind eye to it. When Israel stated its intention to build there, Rice told the Los Angeles Times that the plan was “at odds with American policy,” and that the Israeli explanations she has demanded in relation to the plan were “not really a satisfactory response.”
The second development that upset Sharon was a quote incorrectly attributed to America’s ambassador in Israel, Daniel Kurtzer. The United States allegedly dismissed Bush’s assurances to Sharon regarding the settlement blocs.
Sharon was livid and claimed that the leak of Kurtzer’s comments was an attempt to bring down his government.
In reaction, Rice rushed to give an interview to Israel Radio, in which she insisted that “no one should say that there is no agreement between the two governments [regarding the future of West Bank Settlement blocs].”
Rice said, “That’s wrong. There is.”