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U.S. Officials Supporting Sharon Speech

WASHINGTON — Despite an initial White House rebuke and continuing State Department objections, Bush administration officials are now voicing support for a major policy address delivered last week by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The Israeli leader appeared to throw U.S. officials a curve December 18 in a speech at the Herzliya security conference, when he both promised to dismantle settlements and threatened to take unilateral steps if the Palestinians do not fulfill their security commitments under the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. The long-awaited address drew immediate criticisms from White House spokesman Scott McClellan, but within hours the administration launched a campaign of praise for Sharon, culminating with an endorsement from President Bush.

“You have [Sharon] saying that he will act positively now while threatening to do something we dislike sometime in the future,” said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Why not encourage immediate positive steps? Why dwell on what may or may not happen in the future.”

Still, the official said, Sharon’s address is raising hackles at State, with foreign policy hands feeling it was a mistake for the administration to voice support for a speech that raises doubts about the prospects of the road map.

Administration sources said that the White House still in principle opposes unilateral Israeli actions that effectively prejudge the final status of the territories. However, sources said, the president’s advisors decided it would be better to embrace the part of Sharon’s speech which expressed commitment to the U.S.-led “road-map” plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace and a willingness to dismantle illegal Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank. Embracing those parts of the speech, sources said, would yield better results than initiating what would probably be a premature confrontation.

In the speech, Sharon said he will redouble efforts to push the road map forward, but cautioned that if the Palestinians don’t reciprocate and fulfill their requirements under the first phase of the road map, he will act unilaterally to disengage from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and Gaza. Any such move, Sharon added, will be done in coordination with the U.S. administration.

The White House’s initial reaction to the speech was chilly. The same day of the speech, McClellan declared: “We would oppose any unilateral steps that block the road toward negotiations under the road map that lead to the two-state vision.”

“The United States believes that a settlement must be negotiated and we would oppose any Israeli effort to impose a settlement,” McClellan said. “We don’t think it’s best, at this point, to be discussing now what to do if progress is not made.”

But, shortly after McClellan’s remarks, a senior White House official invited a small group of American reporters to receive the opposite spin on Sharon’s speech.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that Sharon aides briefed the White House on the speech in advance. He also noted with satisfaction Sharon’s commitment to dismantle the illegal outposts and to institute without precondition humanitarian measures to improve the quality of life of Palestinians.

Next, just a day after Sharon’s speech, McClellan backtracked from his criticisms, saying:” We were very pleased with the overall speech.” The White House spokesman said Sharon had made “some important pledges” about outposts, improving the life of Palestinians and implementing a future freeze on settlement construction.

The administration “has laid down some markers on the issue of unilateralism, and therefore, frankly, I don’t see any need for a confrontation,” said Aaron Miller, former senior State Department adviser for Arab-Israeli negotiations, who now heads the Seeds for Peace youth organization. “There is no reason for a confrontation, so why have one. Why lock yourself into an overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly negative reaction to this proposal weeks or months before it’s actually fleshed out?”

After all, Miller said, administration officials “don’t know what they are reacting to” since Sharon’s proposals are intentionally ambiguous.

Sharon told reporters last week that he intends to travel to Washington within the next few weeks to present his plan to Bush. The Israeli leader also said that he intends to meet soon with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei.

Qurei rejected Sharon’s unilateral approach, which he views as an ultimatum to the Palestinian Authority. “The Palestinians are interested in a final settlement and an end to the conflict,” Qurei said. “If Prime Minister Sharon is ready to start negotiating, it can be done earlier than initially expected.”

Israeli analysts and pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington — relying partly on scraps of information from Sharon’s aides — are describing the following scenario: In the coming months, Sharon will dismantle illegal outposts and relax some of the restrictive measures in the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, he will speed up construction of the West Bank security fence.

If the Palestinians do not move to confront terrorism, Sharon will carve out the West Bank to match his vision for a Palestinian mini-state. He will do that by dismantling some isolated settlements — those in the midst of Palestinian population centers — while strengthening Israel’s hold on settlement blocs in the northwestern part of the West Bank near Jerusalem, around the Etzion block south of Jerusalem and along the Jordan Valley.

“Obviously, through the disengagement plan, the Palestinians will receive much less than they would have received through direct negotiations as set out in the road map,” Sharon said.

Despite the recent praise for Sharon’s speech, his address does pose a challenge to the administration, Miller said. “This is unique in two ways,” Miller said, citing the scope of Sharon’s threatened unilateral steps and what he called the “or-else” nature of his speech.

Still, Miller added, Sharon has mainly placed pressure on the Palestinians. “That puts it in a totally new category,” Miller said, but still the main challenge is posed to the Palestinians, not to the Bush administration. In fact, Miller said, Sharon’s ultimatum makes it easier for the administration to handle the possible failure of its road map. “The reality here,” Miller said, “is that if anyone here is going to get the hit on this, it will be the Palestinians.”

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