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Settlements Top the Agenda As Bush, Sharon Meet in D.C.

JERUSALEM — The issue of Jewish settlements in the territories is the main obstacle awaiting Prime Minister Sharon when he meets with President Bush at the White House next Tuesday, according to informed sources here.

Israel views Sharon’s White House visit, his first since October, as “crucial” to continued progress toward peace with the Palestinians, Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom told the Forward in an interview in his office this week. Bush and Sharon are expected to discuss a range of topics, including the overall situation in the post-Iraq Middle East as well as steps toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, and officials here were emphasizing broad areas of agreement between the two leaders as Sharon prepared to depart.

Officials said the two leaders’ shared outlook on the war against terrorism was likely to play a significant role in their talks in the wake of this week’s deadly terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, Sharon is expected to face close questioning from the president on outstanding differences between them over Bush’s “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Topping the list are Washington’s insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze and Israel’s demand that the Palestinians renounce their so-called “right of return” at the outset of the process.

Shalom told the Forward that Washington has already reached an understanding about “most” of Israel’s other reservations over the road map. These include Israel’s objection to the European Union, Russia and the United Nations playing a role in monitoring Palestinian security compliance. America has also accepted Israel’s view that progress in the peace process must be based on performance, not timetables.

In order to minimize friction over the settlements, officials here said, Sharon is expected to present Bush with an Israeli decision to remove some of the so-called “illegal outposts” built in the West Bank during the past two years. But the officials expressed fears that this might not be enough to ward off pressure from the president.

According to reports reaching Jerusalem, State Department officials have identified the settlement issue as Sharon’s Achilles’ heel in the otherwise solid support he enjoys in the administration, Congress and American public opinion. “This is clearly the only possible wedge issue between the two leaders,” one official said.

Sharon’s visit closely follows a heavily scrutinized visit to the region by Secretary of State Colin Powell, which was meant to set the road map in motion. Shalom downplayed media reports that Powell had little to show after his visit to the Middle East last week, insisting the secretary had achieved “much more than meets the eye.”

Among Powell’s accomplishments, Shalom pointed to the expected meeting this Saturday night between Sharon and the newly appointed Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen. The meeting, the first high-level, face-to-face meeting between the sides since Sharon took office more than two years ago, could usher in a new period of “understanding and cooperation,” Shalom said.

Shalom’s upbeat assessment of Powell’s visit contrasted starkly with that of most Israeli analysts and Palestinian officials, who claimed Powell had once again emerged from a tour of the area with no tangible gains. Palestinian officials voiced particular disappointment that Powell had failed to win an explicit endorsement of the road map from Sharon. In fact, they pointed out, Sharon never once mentioned the road map in his public statements, and his advisers told reporters in off-the-record “leaks” that the document, in its current form, is “absolutely unacceptable” in the eyes of the Israeli leader.

Shalom, however, minimized the importance of a formal endorsement. He echoed Powell’s call to the sides to “get started” on the process before waiting for all differences to be ironed out. “Only if both sides start doing things will we be able to begin to break down the walls of mistrust and suspicion,” he said.

Shalom emerged victorious this week in an internal struggle against Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who had argued prior to Powell’s arrival against Israel making “gestures” toward the Palestinians before they took concrete action against the terrorists. Sharon ruled in favor of Shalom, who maintained Israel had nothing to lose from economic and humanitarian concessions unrelated to security.

[Several gestures were announced in advance of Powell’s visit, including the release of about 100 Palestinian prisoners and an easing of closures to permit West Bank and Gaza Palestinian workers to enter Israel. However, Israel reimposed the closure on Gaza the day after Powell left, citing warnings of planned attacks. Palestinians reacted bitterly, according to Ha’aretz.]

Shalom noted that while plans were proceeding for this weekend’s Sharon-Abu Mazen meeting, senior security officials had already resumed security talks, and that he and other Cabinet ministers expected to relaunch a political dialogue with Palestinians in the very near future.

In an interview to be published on Friday in the daily Jerusalem Post, Sharon dismissed any talk of American pressure on the issue of settlements, saying “the only pressure comes from Jews on themselves.” In private conversations, however, Israeli officials maintain that Sharon’s bravado masks a growing apprehension over the widening gap between Jerusalem and Washington on the matter of settlements. Despite Sharon’s protestations, the administration, from the president on down, continues to insist on a “total freeze” on settlements, in accordance with the road map, and rejects Israel’s insistence on continued expansion of the settlements within the limits of their “natural growth.”

Powell made clear in his talks here that Washington also rejects Jerusalem’s demand that the Palestinians renounce their “right of return” as a precondition to an Israeli declaration, required in the road map, on the Palestinian right to an independent state. Although American officials have expressed sympathy with the Israeli position on Palestinian “return,” Powell insisted it should not serve as an obstacle to starting the process.

Israel, for its part, intends to dig in on the “right of return” issue, carrying the fight even to the arena of semantics. Foreign Ministry officials are to be instructed shortly to refer to the Palestinian stance henceforth as a “claim of return,” not a “right.” A document prepared by Foreign Ministry legal adviser Alan Baker argues that the Palestinian “right of return” is not recognized as such under international law.

Israel and Washington are also at odds over the road map’s citing of last year’s Saudi peace plan and the March 2002 Arab summit resolution that was based on it. The administration has rebuffed Israel’s request that the Saudi plan be dropped from the road map, maintaining that mention of the Saudi plan is necessary to maximize Arab support for the process.

On the other hand, Washington has acceded to Israel’s demand that the CIA, not the other partners of the so-called Quartet — Europe, Russia and the U.N. — be in charge of monitoring Palestinian security performance.

Even more important in Israeli eyes is the understanding reached with the administration that performance, not schedules, dictate progress. Under this agreement, the establishment of the provisional Palestinian state, mandated in Phase 2 of the road map, will not take place unless the Palestinians have met all their security obligations, including dismantling Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups. These understandings are not likely to be incorporated formally into the road map, Israeli officials concede, but they will serve as basic guidelines for the map’s implementation.

Sharon will be in Washington for three days, conferring with top administration officials and congressional leaders as well as meeting Bush.

The Tuesday summit will almost certainly be accompanied by continuing speculation about the ultimate intentions of the two men. Powell’s visit failed to dispel doubts about Sharon’s long-range goals, although it is becoming increasingly clear that the prime minister has no intention of adopting the road map as is. In his Jerusalem Post interview, Sharon also appeared to back away from the recent impression that he would be willing to evacuate key West Bank settlements in a peace arrangement. A month ago, Sharon was quoted in Ha’aretz as suggesting that even sacrosanct settlements such as Shiloh and Beit El might need to be removed for the sake of peace. In his new interview he pledged that those locations would remain permanently under Israeli jurisdiction. Nonetheless, Sharon again pledged to do his utmost to win a peace agreement.

A similar guessing game continues in Jerusalem about Bush’s commitment to the peace process. Israeli officials and analysts regularly cite the politics of next year’s presidential election as proof that the president will avoid any activity that might risk a confrontation with Sharon. On the other hand, Americans and Israelis who have spoken to Bush recently report that in contrast to his marked indifference in his first years in office, Bush is now strongly engaged in the Middle East situation and earnestly wants to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation.

But, as always, everything depends on whether the new Palestinian leadership will actually take active steps to curtail terrorism. Since it is too early to tell, the Sharon-Bush Middle East enigma probably won’t be cleared up even after their upcoming meeting has ended.

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