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Sharon Signals He May Step Back from His Plan After Likud Rejection by Dan Baron

May 10, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Is Ariel Sharon disengaging from his disengagement plan?

Israeli Cabinet ministers still reeling from the plan’s rejection in a Likud Party referendum last week got a new surprise Sunday, when the prime minister announced that the plan would be replaced by the end of the month.

“It will take me another three weeks, and then I will present” a new plan to the government, political sources quoted Sharon as telling his Cabinet.

Jerusalem officials were silent on whether the new plan would expand or reduce the scope of Sharon’s original proposal for “disengaging” Israel from the Palestinians. Under the original plan, all settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank would be removed.

Nor was it clear to what extent Sharon would retain key U.S. support for his unilateral policymaking, after his own ruling Likud Party rejected the disengagement plan May 2.

Whatever the case, Sharon’s credibility depends on maintaining forward momentum.

Weekend opinion polls found his popularity paradoxically boosted by the referendum setback. “Israelis prefer a weak premier,” read one headline.

But Sharon has to contend with an increasingly fractious government coalition. The National Religious Party and National Unity bloc are firmer than ever in their belief that Israel should not give up territory. But a bigger coalition partner, the centrist Shinui party, has made continued peacemaking a condition for staying in the government.

In a sign of new prudence in Jerusalem regarding the Bush administration, Sharon’s office called off a planned trip to Washington next week. Sharon had been scheduled to address the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Political sources also said they had expected him to meet with President Bush and follow up on the leaders’ landmark White House summit last month.

Bush has been maneuvering anew on the Middle East, trying to fend off a scandal over U.S. military abuse of Iraqi prisoners that could inflame Arab anger at America’s perceived pro-Israeli stance.

In a weekend interview with a major Egyptian newspaper, Bush signaled that implementation of the U.S.-backed “road map” plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace would be delayed.

Bush told Al-Ahram that the plan’s 2005 deadline for Palestinian statehood “may be hard” to achieve.

“I think the timetable of 2005 is not as realistic as it was two years ago. Nevertheless, I do think we ought to push hard as fast as possible and get a state in place,” Bush said.

The plan had called for a Palestinian state by 2005, but only after a series of detailed and reciprocal steps, such as concerted anti-terrorist action by the Palestinian Authority, that largely have not been carried out.

The Palestinians decried the statements as a sign of poor faith. But Bush called the delay an unavoidable outcome of renewed violence in the region.

Over the weekend, Israeli forces killed five Palestinians in counterterrorist operations in the West Bank and Gaza. The unrest also spread to the northern border, where a Hezbollah landmine killed an Israeli soldier and wounded six others during clashes at the Har Dov border area.

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