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News Analysis Following Likud Vote, Bush Team Backs Away from Israel Commitment by Ron Kampeas

Bitten once by Israel’s notoriously unpredictable political culture, the Bush administration is shying away from the commitments it made to secure an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

On Tuesday, the United States signed on to a statement by the “Quartet” — the four-member alliance guiding the faltering “road map” peace plan — that drew back from President Bush’s historic recognition last month of some Israeli claims in the West Bank and his rejection of any “right of return” for Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel.

“No party should take unilateral actions that seek to predetermine issues that can only be resolved through negotiation and agreement between the two parties,” said the statement, released after Tuesday’s meeting in New York of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and counterparts from the United Nations, European Union and Russia.

“Any final settlement on issues such as borders and refugees must be mutually agreed to by Israelis and Palestinians,” the statement said.

Mutual agreement on borders and refugees, and a mention in the statement of a 2002 Saudi Arabian peace initiative, effectively means a return to the “all-on-the-table” status quo before the April exchange of letters between Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Administration officials suggested that the overwhelming rejection of the plan Sunday by Sharon’s Likud Party left them little choice.

“We gave Sharon the letter to shore him up politically back home, and we’re left holding the bag,” one official said. “It’s not helpful.”

It wasn’t just the dramatic rejection in the Likud referendum — by 60 percent to 40 percent — that stunned the Bush officials; they now questioned the wisdom of Sharon, whom they had considered an astute political player.

“No one knows why he didn’t hold a nationwide referendum instead of a Likud vote,” the official said.

The Bush administration made clear that its own backtracking did not let Sharon off the hook. Top White House staffers rushed to call Sharon after Sunday’s vote to confirm his commitment to withdrawal.

The message: Turn the Likud vote into a bad dream, and let’s move on.

“The population of Israel by and large appears to be supportive of the Gaza withdrawal plan,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday. “Prime Minister Sharon says he still wants to move forward, and we still think it’s a good idea.”

Since his defeat, Sharon has floated plans for a smaller withdrawal that is not likely to satisfy the Americans. The Quartet statement pointedly “took positive note of the announced intention of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to withdraw from all Gaza settlements and parts of the West Bank.”

The statement also underscored the Bush administration’s commitment to consolidating the withdrawal plan. It committed the Quartet to securing financial assistance for the Palestinian Authority after a withdrawal, rebuilding P.A. security forces and supervising elections.

Getting the Quartet to sign on to the withdrawal was a diplomatic coup for Powell, who never appeared happy with Bush’s concessions to Israel and who had rushed to reassure U.S. allies that the concessions were not as far-reaching as Sharon claimed.

Next on the diplomatic clean-up list was the Arab world. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, perhaps America’s best friend among Arab leaders, abruptly canceled a visit the week after Bush’s announcement.

This week he’s coming back, however, and an administration official said he would win his own letter of commitment from Bush — though Bush would not meet Abdullah’s demand to pledge compensation to Palestinian refugees for homes lost in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

“We are in conversation with our other Arab friends to see what assurances and comments they may need from us to make sure that they know that the president has not abandoned them, has not abandoned the hope for the creation of a Palestinian state,” Powell said Tuesday in New York.

The political fallout with Israel probably will last at least until mid-May, when Sharon is scheduled to return to Washington. On Tuesday, however, it was unclear if Sharon indeed would come.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, hastily arranged her own ADL appearance Tuesday, and her deputy Stephen Hadley suddenly agreed to appear Thursday at another pro-Israel event.

“It is still our view that a courageous step toward peace ought to be supported by the international community and the United States,” Rice told the ADL.

It was probably not lost on the administration that any U.S.-Israel tensions arising from the Likud’s rejection of the plan was a gift to critics of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Some 60 diplomats known for their opposition to Israel signed a letter to President Bush linking Arab anger at the United States to U.S. support for Israel, as well as the difficulties of administering Iraq.

“I think we have put the people in that part of the world at serious risk,” said Edward Peck, a former chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Iraq and a signatory of the letter.

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