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As Withdrawal Approaches, Israel and Palestinians Are Still Far Apart

April 6, 2005
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This much is for sure: Israel, with U.S. blessing, is determined to begin a historic handover of the entire Gaza Strip and a good chunk of the West Bank to almost unfettered Palestinian rule on July 20. How they get there and what happens afterward is still vexing all sides — in backroom meetings, in fights over the fine print and in political gamesmanship.

The same week that the U.S. Senate is expected to approve an extraordinary request from President Bush for $200 million in unconditional, fast-track aid for the Palestinians, the United States and Israel are tussling over the shape of a single settlement, and Israel and the Palestinians haven’t even begun to figure out how to transfer substantial assets that Israel will evacuate.

The lack of agreement before such a momentous event has all sides worried.

“God forbid, it can lead to bloodshed,” Yitzhak Herzog, Israel’s housing minister, said this week in Washington, where he was meeting with U.S. officials before the pullout.

The Aspen Institute, a think tank, was working this week with the World Bank and other officials to come up with a formula for the handover. The most senior officials dealing with the handover are attending the Washington sessions, including Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the Palestinian Authority’s civil affairs minister, Mohammed Dahlan.

The sessions come ahead of a summit next Monday between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel 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 have agreed works — but each side is waiting for the other to start the ball rolling.

The World Bank says Israel has yet to hand the Palestinians a list of its assets in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank — a crucial first step — because Israel, which still distrusts the Palestinian Authority, is hoping for third-party involvement in the handover.

Israelis say the roadblock is P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, the chief rival of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. They blame Qurei for slowing security cooperation and for allowing arms smuggling to continue.

Qurei “needs to be confronted, strongly,” Herzog told JTA.

Palestinians agree that they, too, are reluctant to work with Israel, frustrated by what they see as Israel’s slowness in fulfilling commitments made at a February summit between Abbas and Sharon in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

They note that Israel has released only 500 of a promised 900 prisoners, has handed over control of just two of four promised West Bank cities and has left many checkpoints in place.

The upshot 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. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is also scheduled to attend the Aspen Institute events, raised the issue of plans to add 3,500 apartments to the West Bank settlement and Jerusalem bedroom community of Ma’aleh Adumim when she met Tuesday with Sharon’s top aide, Dov Weisglass.

Bush also plains to raise the issue when he meets with Sharon next week. His message will be clear, he suggested Tuesday: “The ‘road map’ calls for no expansion of the settlements,” he said, referring to the U.S.-driven peace plan.

Herzog, whose ministry is responsible for any expansion, said the 10-year-old expansion plans still needed at least three more approvals before becoming policy, adding that his ministry did not plan to build there in the “foreseeable future.”

Despite such assurances, Bush administration officials say they believe Abbas is moving faster than Sharon in facilitating progress toward peace.

The new toughness is not an about-face: Bush 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.

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

To that end, he has pressed Congress hard to approve $200 million in immediate aid to the Palestinians. That hit a minor roadblock when the House of Representatives removed a presidential waiver when it approved the aid last month, a provision that would have made it much harder to get aid to the Palestinians quickly.

In a compromise, the Senate is about to restore the waiver, though they urge that the money go to projects run by nongovernmental organizations and not directly to the Palestinian Authority.

Rice earlier had said she wanted money to go to the authority directly, but the administration has backed away from a demand for explicit congressional approval of direct aid. Restoring the waiver, however, means Bush can spend the money without conditions.

The bill, which the Senate Appropriations Committee is likely to refer to the full Senate on Wednesday, also keeps in place requirements that Bush report on the spending twice in the next six months. The aid is not conditional on the reports.

Meantime, Israel continues to fret about the potential for disaster in the withdrawal. In meetings last week with Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz outlined his worries.

Israel would not be able to assess the degree of settler resistance until late June, and would carry out the withdrawal in four weeks instead of 12, as originally planned, to diminish the opportunities for such resistance.

Israel was training 6,000 soldiers to evacuate settlers unarmed, but no attempt would be made beforehand to disarm the settlers. The desire to accommodate the settlers outweighed the risks inherent in such a formula, Mofaz said.

Israel must leave Gaza with “dignity,” Mofaz said. Otherwise the process could be scuttled.

Herzog spoke of different concerns: His ministry and others must deal not just with handing the Palestinians’ blueprints of the local infrastructure, but how to build new homes for the 9,000 evacuated settlers within Israel, where to educate their children and where to rebury their dead.

Herzog denied reports that Israel wanted U.S. money to carry out the pullout, saying Israel would absorb the estimated $1 billion cost.

Whatever happened, Israeli officials agreed the pullout was written in stone.

“The main thing is to carry out the disengagement,” Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told JTA. “Coordination is preferable, but it’s not necessary.”

That didn’t mean he wasn’t worried, however.

“It may get stuck into all kinds of disagreements, and that will create a sour atmosphere, and who knows how it will end up?” he said.

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