- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2004

Statements from the Bush administration late last week indicating that it may support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposal for a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank are a welcome step toward a more pragmatic approach to the situation.

On Friday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that Washington believes that removing Israeli settlements in Gaza “could reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians, could improve freedom of movement for the Palestinians, [and] address some of Israel’s responsibilities in moving ahead towards the vision the president described on June 24, 2002,” of a two-state solution. Three senior U.S. officials — Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and National Security Council officials Elliot Abrams and Steve Hadley — will discuss Israel’s plan to disengage from Gaza (and parts of the West Bank as well) with Mr. Sharon this week. Regarding the West Bank, they will need to ensure that Israel’s security fence is built in a way that entails the least possible disruption for the Palestinians.

Until recently, Washington had been reluctant to support any unilateral moves by Israel, fearing that any such actions would underminetheprincipleofbilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But it has become increasingly clear that, given the political paralysis that has enveloped the Palestinian side, no real progress is possible at the negotiating table at the present time. Therefore, the Bush administration, with good reason, has become increasingly open to the principle that unilateral steps in the right direction by Israel are preferable to continued stagnation.

Earlier this month, Mr. Sharon said that his government was putting together a plan to withdraw from 17 settlements in Gaza. He pointed out that defending the Gaza settlements, home to 7,500 Jews, constitutes a strategic burden for Israel. They are virtually surrounded by more than 1.3 million hostile Palestinians and protecting them constitutes a huge military/security headache for Israel. Moreover, in the event that the Palestinians at some future time choose a more responsible leadership that is able to bargain seriously with Israel, there is no realistic possibility that these Jewish communities would remain in Gaza.

What is abundantly clear is that Mr. Sharon’s move could set in motion at least a temporary political realignment within Israel. Two of the most hawkish parties in his right-of-center coalition — the National Religious Party and the National Union — could bolt Mr. Sharon’s government. Many members of Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party, which has 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset, are decidedly unhappy with the idea of any Gaza pullback. Although Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has said his party would support Mr. Sharon’s government over a Gaza withdrawal, Mr. Peres is so deeply distrusted by the political right that it is difficult to expect that a Likud-Labor coalition government would last for very long.

U.S. policy-makers must clearly understand what the Sharon plan does and does not do. It does spell the end for some isolated, vulnerable settlements that the prime minister considers a strategic liability. But even after all Gaza settlements are gone, Israel will likely remain in an existential conflict with Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Al- Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the other terrorist groups that currently use Gaza to stage attacks against the Jewish state. Israel will continue to deserve American support as it defends itself against the terrorist menace in its own backyard.

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