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Washington Puts Weight Behind Gaza Withdrawal

WASHINGTON — Caught in a deepening Iraqi quagmire with barely any international support, the Bush administration is lobbying the international community heavily to endorse Ariel Sharon’s plan for unilateral disengagement from Gaza.

Even before the Israeli prime minister returned to Jerusalem from Washington to promote his disengagement plan among Likud party members, American envoys had begun soliciting international endorsement for the plan, administration sources confirmed. American diplomats have already approached the European Union, United Nations and Russia — America’s partners in the “road map” for Israeli-Palestinian peace — to support Sharon’s initiative and to assemble an economic aid package for Gaza. Egypt has been pressed to accept a role in consolidating the Palestinian Authority’s security services in Gaza, in preparation for an Israeli withdrawal.

Indeed, some Israeli and American sources said, the American diplomatic push is effectively turning the Sharon plan, touted by Israel as a unilateral move, into a Bush-Sharon plan with multilateral buy-in from the Europeans and the Arabs as well as the Palestinians themselves.

The diplomacy shifted into high gear this week. Sharon’s White House visit was sandwiched between presidential summits with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, both central players in the emerging strategy. Also visiting Washington this week were top Palestinian Authority ministers. Jordan’s King Abdullah was expected next week.

The flurry of American diplomacy surprised many observers who had seen the Bush administration as largely disengaged from the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Advance reports skeptically depicted this week’s Bush-Sharon summit as a meeting of two “wounded leaders” looking to one another for political cover — Bush from his Iraqi woes and attacks on his counterterrorism policy, Sharon from his legal troubles and resulting political uncertainty. Instead, it turned into a hard-nosed negotiation.

U.S. officials make no secret of the fact that America’s difficulties in Iraq played at least some role in their new resolve on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Bush himself acknowledged as much following his meeting with Mubarak in Texas. “We also believe that the future of the Middle East and the future of Iraq are closely linked,” Bush told reporters after the meeting.

But sources familiar with the administration’s thinking say that its embrace of the Sharon initiative has acquired a momentum of its own, independent from Bush’s problems in Iraq or at home.

“I think that what we are now seeing is that the road to Baghdad goes through Baghdad and the road to Jerusalem through Jerusalem,” said the vice president and foreign policy director of the Brookings Institution, James Steinberg, who served as deputy national security advisor to President Clinton. “At this point the problems are so profound in and of themselves that progress in one doesn’t really help progress in the other.”

Israeli government sources said that in terms of sheer volume, the hours that Sharon’s senior aides spent in consultations with their American counterparts in recent days, working out the details of the initiative, dwarfed any similar diplomatic exchange in their memory. American outreach to European and Arab leaders has been similarly intense, though less publicized.

The American diplomatic effort, said former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, currently director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, “is an indication of how far the Bush administration has come in recognizing what it should have recognized in the beginning of the Iraq war, which is that it needs international support” for its Middle East policy.

U.S. officials said they had encountered skepticism during their efforts to promote the plan, particularly from Europeans fearful that it would derail other international initiatives and anger Arab leaders left out of the planning. In reply, Americans have pointed to their insistence that the plan be framed as part of the road map and not a replacement for it.

A Gaza pullout, enhanced by an evacuation of four Jewish settlements in the West Bank, is a “revolutionary” step which could set the stage for a broader Israeli withdrawal and eventually for Bush’s vision of a two-state solution, U.S. officials reportedly told European diplomats at one recent meeting.

Sharon regularly describes his initiative as a way of establishing Israel’s security boundaries unilaterally, given the lack of a credible Palestinian partner for negotiations. Israeli diplomatic and military officials have repeatedly stated that they have no plans for discussing with Palestinian counterparts the fate of the territory from which Israel withdraws.

Bush is believed to sympathize with Sharon’s assessment of the Palestinian leadership. Yet the escalating American contacts with Britain, Egypt and other parties that maintain an active dialogue with the Palestinians appear to be creating what is in effect an indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process.

Administration officials emphasize, however, that because Israel has vowed to proceed unilaterally with only vague American assurances in return, the current process frees Washington from the expectation that it will “deliver” one party to the other, as has been the case in past Middle East peace efforts. Sharon’s plan is seen, therefore, as generating some good news from the Middle East for the president with little cost to America.

Sources said the administration was pushing to ensure an Israeli timetable that puts off any actual Israeli evacuation until after the November presidential election, in order to avoid damaging scenes of Arab masses celebrating their supposed victory in driving out an occupying army. Delaying the withdrawal, it is believed, will serve a dual purpose of avoiding damage to American efforts in Iraq during a sensitive period and allowing the president to maximize his advantage among pro-Israel voters in the Jewish and evangelical Christian communities.

Sharon, for his part, is moving onto the fast track. His Likud party decided last week to hold its plebiscite on the disengagement plan on April 29, but then voted this week to postpone it to May 2 to avoid conflict with a basketball game. The party’s central committee ordered Sharon to present the detailed pullout plan by April 18 to allow a frantic two-week period for copies of the plan to be sent to some 200,000 Likud members. Opponents, led by ministers Uzi Landau and Yisrael Katz, as well as former defense minister Moshe Arens, say they are confident of stopping the pullout, pointing to polls that show 60% of likely Likud voters planning to vote no.

Sharon and his aides told their interlocutors in Washington this week, however, that they are confident of a majority in the party, the Cabinet and the Knesset, clearing the way for a pullout which could start soon.

Defense Minister Mofaz told reporters this week that by the end of May, “it will all be behind us, including Cabinet and Knesset approval.” He also said it might be possible to “do something” before November, “something President Bush can call an achievement for himself on the eve of elections.”

In Passover interviews to the Israeli media, the prime minister — typically reserved and vague in public statements — straightforwardly presented both the rationale and many of the details of his plan. “A situation has been created in which it is possible to do the things I want and to get an American commitment,” he told Ha’aretz.

Sharon may also have a more cynical calculation in his schedule. Israel’s attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, is expected to decide in early May whether to indict Sharon for bribery. This week Mazuz appointed a committee of senior legal aides to review the evidence and begin preparing an opinion. Observers say Sharon is hoping rapid progress toward disengagement will encourage the legal authorities, who are viewed from the prime minister’s office as liberal intellectuals, to leave him in place so he can move forward.

At the same time, most analysts agree that even if Sharon is indicted and forced from office, his plan will have reached a point of no return once approved by Likud, the Cabinet and the Knesset, as well as the White House and the international community.

Noting the ironic reversal in which Gaza, not Baghdad, may generate an electoral edge for Bush’s re-election bid, Indyk said: “Just as things look so hopeless in Iraq, who would have thought that we would end up with some sense of hope coming from Gaza, of all places?”

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