| New York Times
Bush May Accept a Settlement Plan
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN April 14, 2004
WASHINGTON, April 13 —
The declaration, to be made when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visits the White House, would represent a subtle but substantial shift in American policy, which has viewed the settlements as obstacles to peace and asserted that final borders must be arrived at through negotiations solely between Israel and the Palestinians.
Administration officials also said Mr. Bush would assert that Palestinian refugee families that once lived in Israel should live in a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, rather than in the Israeli lands they continue to claim.
The officials said the declarations — planned for Wednesday as part of a carefully scripted visit by Mr. Sharon — are similar to peace proposals put forward in private in 2000 by President Clinton, and represent a shift to a position where Washington would help set specific terms of any agreement.
They appear to fall short of what Mr. Sharon had been seeking — an acceptance of five specific settlement blocs and an outright rejection of the Palestinian "right of return" to Israel. The exact language and form of the assurances, and their timing, were being discussed Tuesday night. An Israeli official said aides to Mr. Sharon were also studying the language.
Mr. Bush's assurances could be part of a letter, or a preamble to a letter, or simply a statement from the president, an administration official said.
The statement would be that Israel's future borders would have to recognize "demographic realities" since 1967.
That language, officials said, was code for at least some settlements in the West Bank, where Jewish settlers number some 230,000.
The language that would implicitly reject the complete Palestinian "right of return" would be similarly opaque, according to administration officials, in that it would simply reiterate Israel's identity as a Jewish state and suggest that Palestinians should move, in any final accord, to their own state rather than to Israel.
By offering such limited concessions to Mr. Sharon, the administration seemed to be hoping not to alienate the Palestinians, who have rejected Mr. Sharon's plan to keep some settlements.
The Israeli leader arrived in Washington on Tuesday morning and spent the day huddled with aides. He met Tuesday evening with Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush's national security adviser.
"The United States is prepared to adopt some kind of language recognizing the demographic realities that have occurred since 1967," said an administration official, referring to settlements established after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in a war with neighboring countries.
Administration officials said that by endorsing longstanding Israeli objectives, Mr. Bush was hoping to give Mr. Sharon political support for his plan to pull Israeli forces and settlers from Gaza and small parts of the West Bank.
Mr. Sharon announced those withdrawals in December, raising a storm of protest among his most conservative supporters in his own Likud Party. In response, he has scheduled a referendum among party members to seek their backing.
Israeli officials say Mr. Sharon wants to break dramatically from views he has held since the 1970's, when he served as a cabinet minister and developed the idea of populating Gaza and the West Bank with settlements to enhance Israel's security.
Palestinians have called the settlements a land grab and have long demanded their complete dismantlement as part of any peace accord.
In Mr. Sharon's eyes, according to his aides, the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlements from even a small part of those areas has emerged as the only alternative because of the failure of Yasir Arafat and other Palestinian leaders to guarantee Israel's security.
Mr. Sharon is known to feel that the withdrawal is a substitute for the faltering negotiations over the last two years under the so-called road map pressed by the Bush administration, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
Before endorsing Mr. Sharon's withdrawals, the United States has managed to get Israel to say the pullout should not be seen as a substitute for the "road map" but only as a "parking place" while Israel waits for a suitable negotiating partner to emerge on the Palestinian side.
But as Mr. Sharon's visit approached, the administration has sounded increasingly supportive of his pullout plan. On Tuesday, Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said the plan represented "a historic opportunity to move forward" toward a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.
"The return of territory to Palestinian control is a significant development that we want to be able to take advantage of within the context of the road map and the desire of all of us to move forward towards the president's vision," he added.
He declined to specify the details of the negotiations with Mr. Sharon, but other administration officials said they had been extremely intense. On Mr. Bush's side, the negotiators have been Stephen Hadley, deputy national security adviser; Elliott Abrams, director of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council; and William J. Burns, chief Middle East diplomat at the State Department.
On Monday, Mr. Bush discussed the American position on Israel's withdrawal with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who said his country would be willing to help with security in Gaza to fill the vacuum left by an Israeli pullout.
A major American fear is that the vacuum might be filled by radical Palestinians, but it was not clear on Tuesday whether Mr. Mubarak had completely allayed those concerns.
The administration has also sought to win European and Arab support for Mr. Sharon's pullout plan, and understanding for the words Mr. Bush feels he must offer to facilitate it.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell talked Tuesday about the Israeli-Palestinian situation with Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia and Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher of Jordan, according to Mr. Boucher.
The Bush administration, while endorsing the Sharon withdrawal plan in principle, has spent recent weeks trying to assure itself that Egypt and Jordan would help prevent the emergence of Hamas or other Palestinian radicals in Gaza.
In addition, the administration has wanted Israel to withdraw from more settlements in the West Bank than the four Mr. Sharon has publicly committed himself to, and to make sure that Israel would not send forces back into Palestinian areas.
Finally, the administration wants Israel's commitment that it will not abandon the idea of negotiating eventually with Palestinians to achieve a Palestinian state, as Arabs and Europeans especially fear.