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After Cabinet Vote, Sharon Faces a More Difficult Test: Filling in Details

June 8, 2004
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Now that Ariel Sharon has persuaded just about everyone — the Bush administration, its European and Arab allies, and Sharon’s own contentious Cabinet — that it’s time for Israel to leave the Gaza Strip, he needs to fill in the details. But the devil often lies in those details, promising months of difficult wrangling before an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, projected by the end of 2005.

At this point, Sharon’s Cabinet will not commit to a full withdrawal from Gaza. Yet U.S. officials speak in precisely those terms and want to see maps that will allow for a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank.

The Israeli prime minister believes Egypt and Jordan are crucial to the success of his plan, yet those countries want to make sure the plan is as far-reaching as possible before they commit to it. Sharon envisions a far more substantive, long-term role for Egypt and Jordan in administering the plan than! they currently are willing to accept.

Within a day after Sharon succeeded in pushing the plan through his Cabinet on Sunday by a 14-7 vote, signals already seemed to have crossed.

“What the Israeli Cabinet endorsed and what President Bush endorsed is withdrawal from all the settlements in Gaza and certain settlements in the West Bank by a definite date,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Monday. “That’s what we signed up to — or that’s the plan that we gave our support to in April. And in our view, that continues to be the plan that the Israelis are working on.”

Wavering Cabinet ministers, however, insisted on excluding from the Cabinet’s resolution the letters that Bush and Sharon exchanged in April. The letters commit to the full withdrawal, while the Cabinet vote vaguely commits Israel only to the principle of disengagement from the Palestinians.

Already burned once when the ruling Likud Party rejected the plan early last month, U.S. officials ! were skeptical.

In April, Bush offered Israel major concessions in exchange for Sharon’s plan, including recognition of some Israeli claims to the West Bank and a rejection of any Palestinian refugee “right of return” to Israel. Even after Sunday’s vote, the Bush administration was in wait-and-see mode, officials said.

That wasn’t the only problematic area. Israel has hinted repeatedly that it wants Egypt and Jordan to maintain a substantive security presence in Palestinian areas after an Israeli withdrawal, but Egyptian and Jordanian officials say that’s out of the question because it means Arab forces could be called on to quell Palestinian violence.

Furthermore, the assistance that Jordan and Egypt are willing to provide — training for Palestinian Authority security services and pressing and cajoling P.A. President Yasser Arafat to cede power — is contingent on an Israeli return to peace talks.

“The withdrawal should not be unilateral; it should be part of the ‘road map,’ ” said a Jordanian official, referring to the U.S! .-led peace plan that is contingent on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

Within hours of the Cabinet decision, however, Sharon was emphasizing that he did not need the Palestinians to pull off his plan.

“Israel has no intention of waiting any longer for the Palestinians to rein in terror and incitement,” he said.

In response, one administration official said, “Once again, Sharon’s government is in full spin mode.”

Yet the Bush administration itself wasn’t above spinning, committing Sharon to an outline he might not be able to meet, given the Cabinet resistance.

President Bush “wants the Palestinian people to have a state of their own, which would include Gaza and significant chunks of the West Bank, with some alignment of the armistice line,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on CNN.

But seeing how Sharon had to browbeat his Cabinet just to pass the very idea of disengagement, it’s not clear if he can convince its members to accept broad conce! ssions on the West Bank issue.

The Americans have their own conside rations: A U.S.-hosted summit of industrialized nations this week will focus on the Middle East, where Bush is striving for a measure of success in Iraq, especially crucial in an election year.

A host of Arab leaders participating in the summit have made it clear that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to any other U.S. project in the region.

The Bush administration understood the message, as evidenced by the impatient tone of the statement welcoming the Israeli Cabinet vote.

“We urge that practical preparatory work to implement the plan now proceed as rapidly as possible in Israel,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement.

Pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington were not overly concerned: The fact that Sharon passed a major political hurdle in the Cabinet should be enough to secure continued Bush administration support, they said.

Others said Israel needs to pay heed, noting that the Jewish state hardly can afford to squa! nder the goodwill of one of the most pro-Israel administrations in recent memory.

“When the Israelis come forth with an initiative that is negotiated with any administration, and the Israeli prime minister is the instigator of that initiative and there is a public presentation of an agreement that involves the president of the United States coming forth in a supportive way, it’s incumbent on Israel to deliver,” said Mort Zuckerman, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“Should Israel not deliver, it’s bound to have consequences, and they’re not good consequences,” he said.

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