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U.s., Israel Find That Details of Gaza Withdrawal Take Time

March 10, 2004
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It’s become “my-place-or-yours” diplomacy.

A group of three top U.S. Middle East advisers was to return to Israel this week to discuss Israel’s plans for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and possibly parts of the West Bank. A week ago, Israeli advisers were in Washington. Two weeks before that, the Americans were in Jerusalem.

On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was due in Washington, where he was to discuss the withdrawal plan with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

Underlying all the back-and-forth is U.S. frustration with a lack of clear Israeli ideas on how the withdrawal will take shape without Palestinian cooperation.

“We’re not even sure if the Israelis are clear about what they want,” one American official said ahead of the visit to Israel by Steven Hadley, Bush’s deputy national security adviser; Elliott Abrams, his top Middle East adviser; and William Burns, the top State Department envoy to the region.

U.S. Jewish officials say Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s vagueness about his withdrawal proposal is at the heart of the confusion. Giora Eiland, Sharon’s national security adviser, is eager to push ahead with a plan, they say, but Sharon is hanging back for now.

Why Sharon is playing his cards so close to his chest is anyone’s guess.

“Everyone gives you different information,” said Steven Spiegel, a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum, a group that backs U.S. prodding of Middle East parties to get back to the peace table. “A lot of people are scratching their heads.”

Representatives of the four bodies behind the “road map” peace plan — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — were due to meet in Washington on Wednesday.

Powell has joined his European counterparts in calling on the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers to meet as soon as possible. He also wants Israel to explain its withdrawal plans.

“There are many other questions that we want to pose to our Israeli colleagues to make sure we have a good understanding of their plans for Gaza, and plans for the West Bank as well,” Powell said Tuesday after meeting with Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher.

Powell and Muasher had discussed the Sharon proposal but wanted more details.

“I think that if this is done in the context of the road map, if this is done in coordination with the Palestinians, then this might present an opportunity,” Muasher said. “But it is important before we pass final judgment to talk to the Israelis and understand exactly what their intentions are regarding this issue.”

When the Americans initially embraced Sharon’s proposal for unilateral withdrawal last month, each side suggested it would take no time to get it into shape: a U.S. mission to Israel, an Israeli visit to Washington and then Bush and Sharon would wrap it up at a summit.

However, this week’s round is at least the fourth such visit, and the Sharon-Bush summit — originally set for sometime this week — has been bumped at least until next month.

Reports in Israeli newspapers quote unnamed Israeli security officials as saying that the Bush administration is behind the delay, worried that a withdrawal could precipitate violence and adversely affect Bush’s reelection chances in November.

“They’re doing what they can to keep a lid on, maybe because they feel that doing something now is likely to lead to instability,” Spiegel said. “If the administration wanted more, they’d be more active, they’d have someone on the scene day after day working with Eiland.”

U.S. and Israeli officials insist the November elections have not played a role in delaying the presentation of a plan. U.S. officials have gone out of their way to praise the proposal as one that could entice the Palestinians to crack down on terrorism and rejoin the broader U.S.-led road map.

In the next few weeks, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said, “What you can expect is continuing engagement by the United States with both parties to really help facilitate progress.”

The White House’s National Security Council issued a rare on-the-record endorsement of the Sharon proposal.

“The prime minister’s ideas are promising and the discussions are very useful to examine the details and many ramifications,” NSC spokesman Shawn McCormack told JTA. “The prime minister’s proposals have the potential to be historic. We are all working within the framework of the road map and the vision outlined by President Bush.”

U.S. officials say details of the pullout have been more daunting than U.S. and Israeli negotiators originally realized. They hearken back to Israel’s last unilateral withdrawal, from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

Israel negotiated that move with the United Nations, getting U.N. approval for the exact contours of the withdrawal. Even so, Hezbollah seized on the unresolved status of the Shebaa Farms, a tiny patch of land in the Golan foothills that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, as a pretext to keep attacking Israel.

The lesson: If a crucial party has absented itself from the table, make sure everything is wrapped up tightly enough that provocateurs can’t reignite a conflict.

“They’re making sure a lot of details are sorted out so as not to end up with another Shebaa Farms-type of thing,” another administration official said. “They’re making progress, but a lot more remains to be done.”

Another factor might be Israel’s failure to anticipate the degree to which the Palestinian Authority lacks control in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas, the Al-Aksa Brigade and other terrorist groups have asserted control in some of the main refugee camps in the center of the strip.

Avi Dichter, head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, was in Washington this week, where he said that a withdrawal now was not likely to end terrorism, according to reports in Israeli newspapers.

Bush administration officials say another factor has been Sharon’s attempt to work a tradeoff into any withdrawal: Gaza for parts of the West Bank. Israel wants U.S. recognition of its permanent control over Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc — areas the Palestinians effectively ceded in 2000-2001 peace talks.

Sharon might need such a tradeoff to sell the package to hard-liners in his Cabinet — support he is seeking this week. But he’s unlikely to get administration backing for such a trade, the Americans say, because the idea is to get the Palestinians back to the table, not give them an excuse to keep away.

Israel also is seeking Egyptian agreement to secure the Gaza-Egypt border once Israel leaves. The border is a main route for Palestinians to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip.

Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s ambassador to Washington, told JTA that Egypt would withhold a decision until it was certain Israel’s actions were designed to lead to the resumption of peace talks.

“We need to understand the details as far of the package and as far as the proposal,” he said. “We’re not aware of the full details of the position because much of it has not been resolved in Israel itself.”

In any case, he said, “It has to be in the context of resolving the conflict on the basis of a two-state solution and ending the occupation.”

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