- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

The Bush administration played a major behind-the-scenes role in pressing Israel to broaden a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to include four Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon said yesterday.

That and other changes were the price Israel had to pay for securing President Bush’s written endorsement of the plan in a letter he presented to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington in April, Mr. Ayalon said.

“We were thinking just of Gaza. They suggested [some withdrawal] from the West Bank. I think this is a very major change,” the ambassador told The Washington Times in an interview at the Israeli Embassy.

“We agreed to modify our plan … so they really had their imprint,” he said.

Mr. Ayalon said that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, her deputy Stephen Hadley, and Elliott Abrams, senior director for Near East and North African affairs at the National Security Council, were deeply engaged in negotiating the plan’s final version.

“They didn’t give us a blank check and endorse the plan without careful studies and questions — they sent their people to Israel,” Mr. Ayalon said.

Another Israeli official, who asked not to be named, said the first time the plan was discussed officially with the United States was in Rome in November.

That happened during a previously undisclosed meeting between Mr. Sharon, who was on a visit to Italy, and Mr. Abrams, who flew in from London, the official said.

Dennis Ross, the top Middle East envoy in both the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, said yesterday that the final plan was chosen from several options discussed by the Israelis.

Mr. Ross said the White House was correct in demanding modifications to the plan given the “explicit” endorsement Israel subsequently received from the United States.

The Israeli official later explained that at least three options were on the table when the plan was first discussed internally: a withdrawal from a large part of the West Bank, a pullout from Gaza only, and a pullout from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank.

The official said the Bush administration deserves credit for pressuring Israel to adopt the third option.

Although Mr. Bush called the plan “bold and courageous,” its critics in the Arab world and Europe initially saw it as an official U.S. endorsement of the Jewish settlements that will remain in the West Bank.

Official U.S. policy has been for decades that settlements are an impediment to peace, although successive administrations have tolerated them.

After initial skepticism, the plan was accepted by the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Mr. Sharon’s deputy, Ehud Olmert, yesterday told settler leaders in Israel that even more settlements would have to be removed from the West Bank.

“In the future, there will be a need to evacuate more settlements in Judea and Samaria — not because it’s just, but because there is no choice if we want to remain a Jewish and democratic state,” Mr. Olmert said, using the biblical names for parts of the West Bank.

Mr. Olmert’s comments reportedly irritated Mr. Sharon.

The Bush administration has been widely criticized for not being engaged enough in the peace process. Mr. Ayalon took issue with that assertion, but he said intense American involvement is not always necessary.

“Nobody could have been more involved than President Clinton, and it didn’t work. It’s not a matter of American involvement that is a major factor in success,” he said. “It’s a matter of having a partner.”

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is no longer a partner, Mr. Ayalon said, and many Palestinians are beginning to realize it.

“There is a growing realization among the Palestinians that the Arafat system is not the solution but the problem,” he said. “They are becoming more and more emboldened.”

He said an internal conflict among the Palestinians is inevitable because of widespread dissatisfaction with Mr. Arafat’s leadership, although Israel would not like to see a civil war.

Mr. Ayalon also said that Israel is pleased with its “war on terrorism,” noting that a fence being built to separate Israel from parts of the West Bank has reduced attacks.

“The mission can never be accomplished, because it’s an ongoing war, but we are prevailing, and the results are less fatalities, less successful attempts by the terrorists and, I think, there is a growing realization on the other side that terror cannot succeed,” he said.

“We could not have done this without the great help of the United States, which has supported us morally and politically,” Mr. Ayalon said.

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