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Bush Backing for Sharon Initiative Worries European ‘quartet’ Partners

President Bush’s ringing endorsement of Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan has exposed differences at the heart of the diplomatic “Quartet” charged with shepherding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

While the European Union’s Irish presidency said the union was broadly in favor of Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, such a move would have to be carried out “in accordance with certain conditions” identified last month by European heads of state and government.

According to Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, that would entail Palestinian Authority cooperation in any Israeli withdrawal, as well as the long-established E.U. view that any changes to Israel’s pre-1967 border — known as the Green Line — could only be made by agreement between the sides.

Thrown into turmoil by Bush’s move, the Quartet has called a top-level meeting for April 28 in Berlin, a senior E.U. diplomat said last Friday.

The European Union and the United States are part of the Quartet that developed and nominally has been overseeing the “road map” peace plan. The other partners are Russia and the United Nations.

The road map sets out a phased process that eventually is to lead to a Palestinian state. In the first stage, Israel was to take down illegal settlement outposts and the Palestinians were to outlaw and dismantle terrorist groups.

While Israel took some initial, halting steps against the outposts, the Palestinian Authority made clear that it would not move against terrorist groups. Despairing of finding a Palestinian partner, Sharon ultimately decided on a unilateral withdrawal and evacuation of settlements — thereby setting new borders.

In what has been seen as a significant policy change, Bush told the Israeli prime minister in Washington on April 14 that it would be “unrealistic” not to take into account facts established on the ground over the past 40 years when Israel’s final borders are determined.

That was taken as an endorsement of Israeli plans to annex certain West Bank settlement blocs that are close to the Green Line and that are home to tens of thousands of Israelis. However, Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell later sought to clarify that the president was not endorsing specific changes to the border.

“All final status issues must still be negotiated between the parties,” Bush said last Friday. “I look forward to the day when those discussions can begin so the Israeli occupation can be ended and a free and independent and peaceful Palestinian state can emerge.”

Still, for European leaders, even tacit acceptance of changes to the Green Line is unacceptable.

Moreover, they said that Bush’s statement that Palestinian refugees and their descendants from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence would be settled in a future Palestinian state — and not in Israel, as they demand — was an attempt to determine the outcome before the two sides sit down to negotiate.

Emma Udwin, spokeswoman for E.U. External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten, told JTA that the European Commission “would of course be in favor of any initiative if it offered a realistic, fair and sustainable settlement, but the absolutely essential point is that it should be agreed by both sides.”

“We’re not looking for the big idea, because the road map is not rocket science,” she said. “Experience has taught us what needs to be in any peace agreement for it to be accepted by both sides.”

In fact, the most recent detailed peace proposals — such as those presented by President Clinton just before he left office in early 2001, or the “Geneva accord” drawn up last year by left-wing Israelis and Palestinians — closely resembled Bush’s statements, envisioning Israeli retention of major settlement blocs and a minuscule refugee return to Israel, if any.

Some of the Bush proposals drew support from European diplomats. Javier Solana, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, described them as “an opportunity to restart the implementation of the road map.”

But Solana was sharply critical of Bush’s comments on refugees.

“A permanent settlement must also include an agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue,” he said in a statement.

Israelis long assumed that Palestinian demands for a complete withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a “right of return” were merely negotiating ploys.

The refugee issue, in particular, is critical to Israel. Most Israelis consider the demand for a “right of return” a veiled call for the destruction of the Jewish state by demographic means — something fundamentally at odds with a peace process aimed at a two-state solution.

While Brussels-based officials largely observed diplomatic niceties, senior politicians from E.U. member states were considerably more caustic about the U.S. approach.

French President Jacques Chirac called the Bush proposals “dangerous.”

“On the borders, I believe that international law should be respected,” Chirac told reporters in Algeria. “If we play around with international stability or the norms of international law according to circumstances or individuals, it’s an unfortunate precedent.”

Similar reaction came from German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who urged the Americans to adopt a more neutral role between Israelis and Palestinians.

“The interests of both sides have to be considered and any solution must be within the framework of the road map that would guarantee peace and security for the region,” Fischer said in a statement.

Bush did receive some support from his strongest ally in Western Europe, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Meeting with Bush in Washington last Friday, Blair said that if Israel follows through on its proposal, “the concept of a viable Palestinian state becomes a real possibility — not something that’s put in a document and talked about or discussed in resolutions or speeches, but actually is a real, live possibility.”

However, Blair’s own foreign secretary sought to distance Britain from the Bush proposals.

“President Bush has to make his own judgments. We make our own,” Jack Straw told reporters in London.

While British press reports suggested that Blair had been consulted over the general terms of Bush’s remarks to Sharon, they also reported that British attempts to tone down the comments had fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

On the other hand, a senior E.U. diplomat in Brussels told JTA that while he was “not surprised” by Bush’s new initiative, the Americans “did not consult with us about this.”

Most European leaders admitted that Sharon had landed a major diplomatic coup with the Bush administration, but said the protagonists remain as far from a peaceable settlement as ever.

Cowen made that point at an informal gathering of E.U. foreign ministers in Ireland last weekend.

“Israel and the United States are not in conflict, and the fact that Prime Minister Sharon can come to an agreement with the president over what certain elements of the final status should be cannot be a substitute for the necessity for Israel to reach an agreement with those who it is in conflict with,” Cowen said.

Still, he said, Bush’s endorsement of Sharon’s plan had brought new movement in the peace process after months of inaction.

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