- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2001

JERUSALEM — U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last month that the Bush administration wanted to reduce American peacekeeping troops stationed in the Sinai Peninsula as part of a reassessment of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, a Sharon aide said yesterday.
Mr. Sharon did not anticipate that the idea would be mentioned during his visit to Washington and gave no immediate response, the aide, Raanan Gissin, told the Associated Press.
Mr. Gissin said Mr. Rumsfeld proposed the reduction of forces to Mr. Sharon during their meeting in March. "This was part of the U.S. policy of trying to put a distance between themselves and the Middle East," Mr. Gissin said.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said yesterday that Israel places great importance on the peacekeeping force, as well as on cooperation with Egypt and the United States.
In Syria, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Edward Walker dismissed fears that the Bush administration would be less involved in the region than the Clinton one. The United States has no option but to continue its involvement, he said.
"The United States is trying to win the situation back under some control so we can resume our process and hopes for peace in this region," said Mr. Walker, who is on a Middle East tour.
The peacekeeping unit, the Multinational Force and Observers, was set up in 1982 after Israel withdrew from the Sinai as part of a peace agreement with Egypt. The force has 1,900 soldiers from 10 countries, including 865 Americans.
Mr. Gissin said he did not expect the United States would actually withdraw the troops. Such a decision would need approval from both Israel and Egypt.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed that Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Sharon discussed the Sinai peacekeepers when the Israeli leader visited Washington in March. But Adm. Quigley said he didnt know details of the discussion.
In early April, Mr. Rumsfeld also discussed the proposed withdrawal with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the New York Times reported yesterday.
Mr. Mubarak opposed the move, citing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and strained relations between Israel and Egypt.
The Times report said both Israel and Egypt would give their answers to the U.S. administration next month.
Before the presidential election, the Bush campaign said American troops in Sinai were among the U.S. peacekeeping operations that would be reviewed to determine whether they were putting too much strain on the military.
State Department officials were not informed of the proposal and the plan was not outlined in any of the preparatory diplomatic papers drawn up before the Rumsfeld-Sharon meeting, according to the Times.
Mr. Rumsfeld had discussed the idea with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a State Department official told the newspaper, but it was not known whether Mr. Powell endorsed it.

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