White House Approval Expected for Gaza Pullback
FOX-News / AP       April 13, 2004

WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (^) is looking for a signal of approval from President Bush for retaining part of the West Bank, and keeping Jewish settlers there, in an eventual accord with the Palestinians.

Sharon's hope was that Bush, perhaps in an exchange of letters, at their White House meeting on Wednesday would accept the Israeli leader's claim that Israel's security requires recognition of "new realities" on the West Bank.

In that way, Sharon would gain U.S. backing for retaining several settlements in the territory, particularly large blocks of Jewish settlers near Jerusalem.

Any such Bush administration approval — even if vaguely worded — would mark a significant concession in the current and long-standing U.S. position about how much land Israel should have to give up in exchange for peace with the Palestinians.

A senior Israeli official traveling on Sharon's plane to Washington said Tuesday that although the Bush administration was not expected to recognize outright the West Bank settlement block, as Sharon had requested, the Bush administration was expected to say that any final peace deal must take into consideration the "demographic realities" — that is, settlers — on the ground.

The Palestinians, who want to establish a state in all the West Bank and Gaza, are wary of Sharon's plan — which also includes pulling out of Gaza — fearing he is sacrificing Gaza and parts of the West Bank as a prelude to keeping other areas.

An Israeli withdrawal from Gaza already had Bush's endorsement even before Sharon sets foot in the White House.

But that is only a part of the difficult bargaining that has been under way since mid-February and which intensified before Sharon's arrival in White House talks between Israeli and U.S. officials.

Sharon met Tuesday night for about an hour at his hotel with Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security assistant.

Bush wants to tie the Gaza pullback as tightly as he can to fulfilling his promise of establishing a Palestinian state by next year under outlines laid down in his "road map" to peace.

The Israelis, meanwhile, want at least a signal from the president that he would accept retention by Israel of part of the West Bank where tens of thousands of Jewish settlers would remain.

Bush and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (^) stressed after their meeting Monday at Bush's Texas ranch that while an Israeli pullback in Gaza would be welcomed, it must be under a wider agreement that would leave the Palestinians with a state.

"I think any withdrawal from the occupied territory is very highly appreciated," Mubarak told reporters.

But, he said, withdrawal from Gaza alone would not be enough.  "It will not be accepted by the public opinion in the area," Mubarak said.

Sharon has moved in that direction, promising to shut down 21 settlements in Gaza.  But how much of the West Bank he is willing to relinquish, and how many of its approximately 220,000 Jewish settlers he would move, are questions the prime minister has danced around.  About 92,500 of the 220,000 settlers live in the blocks that Sharon has listed as those he wants to keep.

Sharon is hoping for Bush's approval, perhaps in an exchange of letters, to keep parts of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, both of which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War (^).

In their public remarks, Bush administration officials did not call for a full withdrawal by Israel.  They emphasized, however, that any pullback must be a step toward Palestinian statehood.

And in New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he hoped Israeli withdrawal in Gaza would not impede creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Samuel Lewis, the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1977 to 1985, said Monday he thought "the deal is cooked" and that Sharon will receive assurances that Israel would not have to withdraw all the way back to the pre-1967 borders. 

"There will be some artfully constructed language" that would improve Sharon's chances of gaining the approval of his Likud Party for a Gaza pullback, Lewis said Monday in an interview.

"What really matters is the photographs that will come out of the meeting," said Lewis, an adviser to the Israeli Policy Forum, a private research group.