Despite Setback in Likud Party, Israel, U.S. Pushing for Withdrawal

It’s the classic political conundrum: Two pledges to two constituencies, each at odds with the other.

For Ariel Sharon, the answer was easy: He stands to lose more by breaking a promise to President Bush than to his own Likud Party.

May 2, the day Likud members soundly rejected the Israeli prime minister’s proposal to pull out from the Gaza Strip, is little more than a distant, discomfiting echo as U.S. and Israeli officials charge ahead with the plan.

Sharon at one point had said he would abide by the Likud referendum, but that was a dim memory when his deputy, Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference Monday night.

“We had some political setbacks, but despite these political setbacks the prime minister is determined to implement the plan and fulfill his pledge to the president,” Olmert told an audience that included senior administration officials and almost half of Congress’ membership. Olmert spoke in Sharon’s stead; Sharon was busy preparing a slightly modified Gaza withdrawal plan.

Bush reinforced the point the next day in his own speech to AIPAC.

“I supported the plan announced by Prime Minister Sharon to withdraw military installations and settlements from Gaza and parts of the West Bank,” Bush said to applause.

The ubiquity of the plan at the AIPAC annual policy conference was a measure of U.S. and Israeli determination to proceed with it.

Generally, AIPAC studiously avoids endorsing any plan that is not official Israeli government policy — Israel’s Cabinet has yet to approve the withdrawal proposal — but the conference treated it as a fait accompli. A number of sessions dealt with its implications, and speaker after speaker endorsed it.

Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon, who generally avoids internal Israeli party politics, called the Likud vote a “complication we don’t need” and assured the 5,500 AIPAC lobbyists — who took the plan to Capitol Hill Tuesday – - that “the plan will go forward.

“It is the best alternative for us and for the region,” Ayalon said.

“I am hopeful that Congress, in a bipartisan way, can express support for principles the president articulated during Prime Minister Sharon’s recent visit to the United States,” Hoyer said. “I look forward to working with Tom DeLay to accomplish that end.”

Moments later, DeLay affirmed, “I can announce today that we have already begun working with Steny to properly affirm Congress’ absolute support for these principles.”

Getting Hoyer and DeLay to couple their names — a rare moment of public agreement between the two — signaled the determination of Israel and its supporters here to get the plan back on track.

An official familiar with the proposed bill said he expected it to be presented within weeks. Its language would underscore the withdrawal from Gaza, the official said, though the primary focus is to anchor in law Bush’s recognition of some Israeli claims in the West Bank and his rejection of any right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

Bush’s commitments to Sharon sparked Arab anger at a time when the president could ill afford it: The transition to civilian power in Iraq is barely a month away, insurgents killed the top Iraqi official this week and the U.S. military is reeling from a lingering prison abuse scandal in Baghdad.

The setback wrought by the Likud vote means Bush and his aides are much more cautious this time around. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has pulled back from Bush’s commitments to Sharon, and Bush notably did not mention them in his speech.

That doesn’t mean the concessions are off the table. But Bush aides, who wondered out loud what Sharon was thinking when he submitted the plan to Likud’s notoriously tough rank and file, are reserving judgment.

“We thought we were on the verge of something in this very frustrating, almost ‘Perils of Pauline’ Middle East saga of a search for peace, with the Sharon plan for disengagement from Gaza, where 80 percent of the people of Israel by opinion polls appeared to be for it, but Likud was not for it,” Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, said Tuesday in Senate testimony. “We were quite bullish on this, and now we’re disappointed.”

U.S. officials acknowledge that they didn’t sufficiently prepare Arab officials before Bush’s April 14 announcement with Sharon. Powell worked Arab leaders at an economic summit in Jordan this weekend, and his efforts bore fruit: Jordan’s king ended the forum on a note of hope.

“We must bring justice for the Palestinians. We must offer security for the Israelis. We must take action for change,” King Abdullah II said.

Even more substantively, Abdullah came as close as any Arab leader ever has to saying publicly that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has to go.

“I think Arafat needs to have a long look in the mirror to be able to see whether his position is helping the Palestinian cause or not,” Abdullah told The New York Times in its Tuesday edition.

Some leading Palestinians also suggest it might be time for Arafat to go, and want the United States and Israel to stand back in order to smooth the transition.

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, said Israel’s isolation of Arafat distorted his status and hindered Palestinian efforts to retire him.

“Arafat’s survival has become the issue,” she said. “People are willing to forgive him a lot of things they once weren’t willing to forgive him.”

Bush administration officials appear to agree that it’s time to bring the Palestinians back on board. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, each met recently with P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei to press him to prepare for an Israeli withdrawal that could occur as early as next spring.

They were the first such meetings since Qurei assumed the premiership last year, but Israel did not object, notwithstanding Sharon’s stated aversion to the current Palestinian leadership.

Gen. Eival Gilady, one of the drafters of the withdrawal plan and until recently a senior adviser to Sharon, said coordination with the Palestinians was inevitable.

“It is in our interest to let positive forces take over,” he told AIPAC.

Another sign of U.S. determination to get the withdrawal under way was the muted reaction to Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes along the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt this week. Israel says the mission is intended to stop arms smuggling, and quiet along the border would hasten an Israeli withdrawal.

Whatever was happening on the surface, Armitage said in the Senate, the United States, Israel and other allies were working hard to make sure the withdrawal went ahead.

“It’s kind of like a duck on the water,” he said. “It doesn’t appear to be moving very much, but underneath there’s a lot of churning going on.”

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