- The Washington Times - Monday, April 19, 2004

With the announcements that prominent Israeli hawks, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, will support a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears likely to prevail in a May 2 Likud Party referendum on the pullback. Mr. Sharon’s efforts to win the support from members of his center-right coalition received a major boost last week with President Bush’s endorsement of the withdrawal plan.

Although the exact details and wording of the referendum have yet to be finalized, the broad outlines of the Sharon proposal are generally well known. Israel would withdraw completely from the 225-square-mile Gaza Strip, in the process uprooting 21 Jewish settlements, home to more than 7,000 people — the first Gaza settlements to be relinquished by Israel since it captured the territory from Egypt nearly 37 years ago.

Until a viable Palestinian government emerges, Israel will retain a narrow corridor near the Egyptian border and its navy will continue to operate in Gaza’s coastal waters to prevent arms smuggling. In recent days, Israel has been discussing the handover of Israeli settlements with the World Bank and the Agency for International Development. Israel wants to ensure that, following its withdrawal, settlement buildings are used to provide decent housing for Palestinian refugees, rather than terrorists or cronies of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

In the West Bank, Mr. Sharon also proposes to withdraw from four outlying Jewish settlements — the first withdrawal from any settlement there since Israel captured the area from Jordan in the Six-Day War. Settler activists and others on the Israeli political right are furiously denouncing the prime minister’s proposed unilateral pullout from the 25 settlements.

In response to the fact that Mr. Sharon has courageously opted to put his political career on the line by actually removing some settlements he believes are not essential to Israel’s long-term security, Mr. Bush was quite properly willing to do what he could in order to accommodate the Israeli leader. The president helped Mr. Sharon by putting the United States on record as recognizing two salient political realities: that any Palestinian “right of return” to Israel will mean the end of the Jewish state and is unacceptable; and that Israel cannot be forced to return to the precarious 1949 Armistice Line in the West Bank.

As Mr. Sharon fights to win support on the right for his unilateral withdrawal plan, he sent a powerful message Saturday night, with the assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi — the second Hamas chieftain to be killed in the past month. Mr. Sharon is determined to ensure that Palestinians don’t misinterpret an Israeli pullout from Gaza the way they read the withdrawal from Lebanon four years ago: as an Israeli retreat under fire from terrorists.

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