Bush Administration Begins Embracing Sharon’s Proposals

For Ariel Sharon’s government, Washington is a town where once unimaginable dreams can come true.

The Bush administration is on board with the West Bank security barrier, officials who could once barely contain their impatience with Israel have shut out the Palestinians, and the president wants to learn more about the Israeli prime minister’s plans for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians.

The problem with answered prayers, Israel is finding, is that they lead to more questions.

In recent meetings with their Israeli counterparts, top U.S. officials have asked Israel to fill in the gaps in Sharon’s broad outlines of a break with the Gaza Strip and pullouts from remote areas of the West Bank.

“The Americans want details,” an Israeli official said.

Israelis are scrambling to provide those details ahead of a visit to the region by two top White House officials: Steve Hadley, second-in-command at the National Security Council, and Elliot Abrams, the top Middle East official at the NSC.

The two were to have gone to the Middle East this week, but administration officials said the visit has been postponed for the time being — possibly until next week, possibly later.

When they do visit, Giora Eiland, who heads Sharon’s National Security Council, will present them with an array of options. After getting feedback from his U.S. counterparts, Eiland, top Sharon adviser Dov Weisglass and others on the Israeli security council will further refine the plans and arrive in Washington for more consultations a week later.

Sometime after that — as soon as early March — Sharon himself will arrive in Washington to present Bush with a detailed plan.

Americans were skeptical at first when Sharon announced his plans earlier this month for a unilateral withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza, but a barrage of Israeli reassurances melted resistance.

The speedy evolution from the United States on the fence to the United States on Israel’s side was evident in U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher’s initial statements.

On Feb. 2, Boucher’s position was pronouncedly wait-and-see: “I don’t think I can put this move in isolation,” he said. “What needs to be looked at is the overall commitment that they had made and the need to move on those specific commitments that they’ve made so far.”

It took just a day for him to sound more convinced: “We certainly welcome action on settlements,” he said on Feb. 3. “We look for their action on their obligations.”

Three elements contributed to U.S. openness to Sharon’s surprise announcement: Deepening disappointment with the Palestinians’ failure to control terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; the Israeli Labor Party’s pledge to back the Gaza plan from the opposition should hard-line pro-settler parties bolt the ruling coalition; and reassurances from government officials that the withdrawal would hew to Bush’s vision of working toward a viable Palestinian state.

“We see these processes in the framework of the president’s vision of June 24, 2002,” Israeli Trade and Industry Minister Ehud Olmert said Feb. 5 after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington.

Olmert was referring to the day Bush spoke of the establishment of a Palestinian state and an end to Palestinian terrorism by 2005. Olmert also reassured Powell that Israel would hasten the introduction of measures to ease the lives of Palestinians.

A deputy prime minister, Olmert said Bush administration officials were confident that Israel would not use disengagement as a pretext to choke off a viable Palestinian state and to entrench Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

“They understood that it is not Israel’s intention to create facts on the ground,” Olmert later told reporters.

Details that emerged over this weekend reinforced Olmert’s message that Israel was ready to work within the confines of Bush’s vision. Eiland and other officials outlined plans to change the route of the security fence, a pledge that addressed U.S. concerns that the fence was cutting too deeply into the West Bank.

Boucher said Tuesday that the United States was monitoring the adjustments.

“It’s quite clear that the Israelis understand, know what our concerns are, know what our objections are to various parts of this routing,” Boucher said. “And we’ll see to what extent they are taking those into account or making changes.”

There was also talk of moving Gaza settlers to the West Bank to expand settlements there, but administration officials said they understood that to be little more than talk — as opposed to the more substantive pledges to reroute the security barrier and remove the Gaza settlements.

“Look, let’s take it one step at a time — pulling out of settlements is a good thing,” said one administration official. “It’s the kind of action that could jump-start a dialogue between the parties.”

The Americans showed their pleasure with Sharon by shoring up support for him in the United States and abroad. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan enthusiastically endorsed the removal of Gaza settlements — not coincidentally, Jewish officials said, a day after meeting with Bush.

“Withdrawal from Gaza that has been announced by the prime minister, if it does take place, can really give us a very important moment — a new dynamic that can propel the process forward,” Annan said.

Other U.S. carrots for Sharon’s pledge had to do with newly vigorous support for a security barrier reviled not long ago by Bush himself.

Speaking to an American Israel Public Affairs Committee event last week in Washington, Asa Hutchinson, an undersecretary for the Homeland Security Dept. who is close to Bush, said he “understood a nation’s desire to have a security fence.”

Powell also had something to do with the decision in Europe to oppose the upcoming Feb. 23 hearing on Israel’s security fence at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

These are all signs, Jewish officials in Washington say, of the Bush administration’s understanding that Sharon needs international legitimacy if he is to undertake something as traumatic as the removal of settlements.

Israelis, for their part, are impressed.

“We’re negotiating with the United States without negotiating with the Palestinians,” one official said. “It’s a radical change.”

Maybe so, but the ultimate American goal is to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table — and soon.

“We’ve been pressing hard for the two leaders to speak to one another,” Powell said last week in a roundtable with editors from The Washington Post.

Powell said they were also looking to the Palestinians for ideas.

“There are some suggestions of a Palestinian security plan that’s being worked on, but it’s slow, and I don’t want to convey a false sense of optimism.”

If anything, the Americans despair more than ever of the Palestinian commitment to reforming their security forces.

The State Department is still smarting from an Oct. 15 bomb attack on a U.S. convoy in Gaza that killed three. The latest Palestinian effort to assuage U.S. security concerns — a closed door military trial of four Palestinians charged in the bombing — backfired.

U.S. officials said the trial this week was little more than a kangaroo court.

“We do not believe that the proceedings now under way represent the application of justice that we seek,” a State Department official said. “What is required is a genuine investigation which definitively resolves these killings by bringing to justice those responsible.”

Palestinians say Israel has effectively destroyed their security capabilities, and the Palestinian Authority is hardly in a position now to reassert its security authority.

“The territories are almost entirely under Israeli control,” Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian labor minister, told JTA. “Security wise, the Palestinians are restricted from doing anything, including their security work.”

Khatib said the process needs greater American involvement in order to revive.

That’s typical of a Palestinian tradition of reliance on outsiders to nudge the parties into hard decisions, said Jonathan Jacoby, a founder of the Israel Policy Forum.

“The Palestinians generally speaking are waiting for someone to champion their cause, which I don’t think is a very constructive way of confronting it,” said Jacoby, whose group — which promotes U.S. engagement in the region — just returned from a high-level Middle East visit.

Sharon’s pledge to withdraw from Gaza — if he makes good on it — is just the factor that might spur the

Palestinians into responding in kind and get them back to the table, Jacoby said.

“Now they have something to react to, which is good,” he said.

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