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Israel and Palestinians Get Back to Diplomacy, Though Scope is Narrow

April 18, 2005
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Guided by an American president eager to achieve peace in the Middle East during his second term in office, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are getting back on the diplomatic track. Yet despite encouraging words from both sides Sunday, talks for now appear limited to coordinating the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, rather than the final peace accord envisioned in the U.S.-led peace “road map.”

Israel’s national security adviser, Giora Eiland, told Army Radio that there would soon be contacts with the Palestinian Authority on security and civil measures required to prevent a power vacuum in Gaza after the pullout, which is slated to begin July 20.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had long cold-shouldered the idea of helping Israel with a “disengagement” plan that Palestinians suspect will permanently deny their claims to most of the West Bank.

But on Sunday, after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he showed a new flexibility.

Abbas said he confirmed with Mubarak “that we are ready to coordinate with the Israelis completely. But we have to know where our feet are taking us, and whether” disengagement “is tied to the road map, and whether they are complete withdrawals.”

The cautious comment appeared to be in response to a Yediot Achronot report last Friday that, after completing the summer withdrawals from Gaza and the northern West Bank, Sharon plans further selective pullbacks from the latter territory.

Thereafter, Israel would unilaterally demarcate a border around large West Bank settlement blocs, leaving the Palestinian Authority with a patchwork of self-rule areas there, the daily newspaper said, citing sources in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Sharon, fresh from a Texas summit with President Bush where the U.S. leader reaffirmed his faith in the road map, dismissed the report as a “base lie.”

“The report is false. I am committed solely to the road map, which we will implement if the Palestinian Authority cracks down on terrorist groups,” he told his Cabinet.

A Sharon confidant told JTA that while there was no detailed blueprint to deserve the Yediot moniker of “Disengagement B,” the prime minister has little intention of seeking a permanent accord with the Palestinian Authority.

“The Palestinians will never dismantle terrorist groups, nor will they yield on core issues such as their demand for a refugee ‘right of return,'” the confidant said. “Therefore we have to take our own steps to ensure Israel ends up with viable and defensible borders.”

Ha’aretz suggested that the Yediot story was a “test balloon” leaked by Sharon’s office to prepare public opinion for further pullbacks in the West Bank.

“It should be remembered that previously Sharon denied early reports about the Gaza withdrawal plan, and even declared that a unilateral move would not be good for Israel, just a few weeks before he went public with the plan,” Ha’aretz diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn wrote.

In another fence-mending move, this time aimed at Amman, the Cabinet on Sunday approved the release of nine Jordanian security prisoners.

“I am very pleased that we can make this gesture to honor the king of Jordan,” Trade Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters.

The Jordanians slated to go free, most likely on Wednesday, were jailed on terror-related charges but not convicted of attacks that caused Israeli casualties. Another nine Jordanians believed to be involved in killing Israelis remain in Israeli prisons.

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