Washington Parley Produces Plan for Cooperation on Disengagement

In a seventh-floor boardroom overlooking Washington’s busy Dupont Circle, three Israelis and two Palestinians asked the American to leave. Two hours later, they had come up with a formula that they hope will keep Israel’s Gaza Strip withdrawal, planned to begin July 20, from ending in bloodshed and chaos.

That success was accompanied by news that the U.S. Senate is set to approve $200 million in unconditional aid to the Palestinians.

The presence of top Israeli and Palestinian officials Wednesday at an Aspen Institute conference on investment in Gaza launched the crucial first step in making sure the withdrawal goes smoothly.

Until now, months of efforts toward an agreement to cooperate have been dogged by mutual distrust and an unwillingness by either side to take the first step.

“This cooperation, which will start very, very soon, will change the whole character of disengagement,” said Ephraim Sneh, a legislator in Israel’s ruling coalition and one of the Israelis who struck the deal at the conference.

Late Wednesday morning, Sneh and others — Giora Eiland, the head of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s National Security Council; Amnon Lipkin Shahak, a former Israeli Cabinet minister and army chief of staff; Hind Khoury, the Palestinian Authority minister of state; and Mohammed Dahlan, the P.A.’s civil affairs minister — asked the think tank’s president, Walter Isaacson, to find something else to do. Isaacson made sure the room was stocked with sandwiches and beverages, and left.

“When there is a strong political will on both sides, there is no need for a third party,” Sneh said.

The agreement includes coordination committees to handle border crossings, transportation, trade and ports. It comes before a summit scheduled to take place Monday between Sharon and President Bush at Bush’s Texas ranch.

The World Bank drew up a 12-point blueprint for the transfer in December, one that both sides agreed works — but the crucial first step, in which Israel gives the Palestinians a list of assets to be evacuated, has yet to happen. That now should come within days.

Dahlan, who is the top Palestinian official handling the pullout, said the Palestinian Authority would do all it could to make withdrawal easy for Israel, adding that he confirmed Wednesday’s deal by phone with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas.

“We will coordinate in every way the Israelis like and the international community likes,” Dahlan said.

Despite the breakthrough, however, considerable skepticism remained on both sides, dampening much of the enthusiasm at the conference.

Eiland said the Palestinians still appeared to be winging it.

“Where exactly do they plan new neighborhoods, industrial zones?” he asked. “Some comprehensive plan for the future of Gaza has to be made.”

Dahlan elicited a gasp from a hall full of diplomats, U.S. legislators and major donors when he raised the specter of violence if the Palestinians feel they’re receiving insufficient peace dividends.

“If the withdrawal is going to be the way Sharon is saying, there will be a third intifada,” he said.

Even on the dais, discussing the new agreement, participants interrupted one another over whether the Palestinians should rebuild their airport, which Israel regards as a security risk.

Israel, which still distrusts the Palestinian Authority, had held out hope until now that a third party would assume control of evacuated settlements.

Palestinians were reluctant to work with Israel, frustrated by what they saw as Israeli slowness in fulfilling commitments made at a February summit between Abbas and Sharon in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

The upshot of the uncertainty is that Abbas, who was to meet with Bush before Sharon, has yet to set a date for a Washington visit. Abbas is concerned that if he comes away from a meeting with little to show for it, his relatively moderate allies will be crushed by extremists in July legislative elections.

There is some sympathy for that view in the administration. Bush plans to raise with Sharon the Israeli plan to add 3,500 apartments to the West Bank settlement and Jerusalem bedroom community of Ma’aleh Adumim.

“The ‘road map’ calls for no expansion of the settlements,” Bush said Tuesday, referring to the U.S.-driven peace plan.

Bush’s toughness on settlement expansion is not an about-face: He is sticking to his historic concessions last year rejecting any demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel, and accepting the reality that Israel will keep large settlements like Ma’aleh Adumim.

He is set to repeat those assurances at his Crawford summit with Sharon, as well as his demand that Palestinians meet their central road map commitment to dismantle terrorist groups.

But Bush also is under pressure to revive alliances with Europe to tackle instability in Iraq and over the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and wants to see rapid progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

To that end, Bush has pressed Congress hard to approve $200 million in immediate aid to the Palestinians. The Senate is about to approve the funds, though it will urge that the money go to projects run by nongovernmental organizations and not directly to the Palestinian Authority.

Still, the Senate bill restores the president’s prerogative to waive existing laws banning direct aid to the Palestinian Authority; a House of Representatives’ version that passed last month removed the waiver. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has suggested that the president would prefer to send some money directly to the Palestinian Authority, and the waiver is likely to survive the Senate-House conference.

The bill, which the Senate Appropriations Committee referred to the full Senate this week, also requires two spending reports from Bush in the next six months.

The committee also passed an amendment to the bill, proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), that allows the State Department to transfer an additional $10 million in available aid through the Overseas Private Investment Corp.

Feinstein — an Aspen Institute board member who initiated this week’s conference and cajoled leaders from both sides to attend — said the $10 million could leverage as much as $116 million in private investment.

The Aspen Institute conference outlined five Gaza investment projects to be launched by the end of the year: a desalinization power plant; a communications center; a hospital; a housing company; and a uniform manufacturer.

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