Washington Sees Gaza Withdrawal as Stage One of Rapid Israeli Rollback

26 May: The Bush administration has always shied from getting confrontational with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Eager to see the Gaza and northern Samaria “disengagement” get underway, Washington backed the pullouts with all the diplomatic means and media spin at its disposal. This fitted in with Sharon’s strategy of presenting disengagement to the Israeli public as a finite plan that would not lead to additional withdrawals afterward. US officials also had no problem with Sharon describing his three-day visit to New York and Washington this week as nothing more than an opportunity to touch base with American Jewish leaders.
But on the quiet, administration officials took the opportunity of a word in the Israeli prime minister’s ear to dictate his next steps in the wake of the evacuation of 21 Gaza Strip communities and four out of the 120 in the West Bank.
In an exclusive report from Washington, debkafile`s sources can reveal that US officials, including national security adviser Stephen Hadley, made a point of seeing Sharon during his visits to New York and Washington in the first part of the week. Tuesday, May 24, he pledged to the AIPAC convention – to loud cheers – that major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria would remain an integral part of Israel and be contiguous to the state of Israel in any final-status agreement. That same day, those US officials informed him that the forces assigned to execute the pullout from Gaza must be assigned directly to their next task: the dismantling of each and every “illegal settlement-outpost” in the West Bank. The evacuations would not end there either. Sharon was also told that further steps would be demanded, to be discussed at a later date.
Hadley had a simple “suggestion” for Sharon: Since the large forces he deployed for the Gaza withdrawal in mid-August will have been relocated in mid-September to northern Samaria to evacuate four settlements, the prime minister should take advantage of the pullout momentum and the resources dedicated to the disengagement and clear out the “illegal outposts” as well.
As to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his White House talks Thursday, May 26, the US officials assured Sharon that he would be made to promise steps suggesting Palestinian cooperation in several disengagement-related issues. The US tactic presented to the Israeli leader was clear: President Bush, by forcing Sharon to remove the disputed West Bank outposts without delay, is entitled to demand that Palestinian reciprocity by cooperating with Sharon across the disengagement board – starting from the evacuation of Gush Katif and northern Samaria and continuing through further Israeli withdrawals from large tracts of the West Bank.
According to debkafile‘s Washington sources, the US president was also prepared to warn Abu Mazen to stop trying to jump to the last stage of the roadmap for final status talks. He will be told to stop attempting to put the horse before the cart. Either drop the roadmap or follow through on all its performance-related clauses including uprooting terrorism and reforms. In short, the Palestinians cannot hope to achieve a permanent state with permanent borders in one leap. The US, the Palestinians and Israel, in the Bush administration’s view, share an interest in achieving a provisional Palestinian state with temporary borders before the end of Bush’s term in office.
As for the Palestinian elections on July 17, debkafile‘s Palestinian sources report that Abu Mazen can now afford to stick to the date without delay and present this as a concession to the US president. In fact, the delay could be abandoned after Hamas reached a strategic decision not to challenge Abbas’ Fatah for the dominant role in the Palestinian government. Its leaders decided that they had more leverage for manipulating Abu Mazen from outside government while letting him face the music from Washington and Jerusalem. The Hamas would be better placed to build up its popularity in the Palestinian street as an opposition group.
As for Sharon, the administration purposely left Sharon no maneuvering room or a chance to explain the new move to the Israeli public. As one senior US source put it, “We did not want to give Sharon leeway for delaying action in the West Bank.”
The best the Americans could offer Sharon was a vague promise to help him “overcome the domestic difficulties he will face in implementing” the outposts` removal.
A startled US official, in Washington for the AIPAC conference and aware of the American maneuver, asked the administration why it had decided to sandbag the prime minister. “There has been no change in the US position” – came the reply. “This has always been Washington`s position.”
But what about the repeated assertion by Sharon and his chief political adviser, Dov Weisglass, that there would be no additional pullouts after the Gaza and northern Samaria disengagement.
“Sorry, but you can`t rely on what Weisglass says,” the US official replied. “He does not understand the way secretary of state Condoleezza Rice thinks. Nor does he understand her diplomatic vocabulary. During his meetings with Rice, he misinterpreted her naturally courteous demeanor as a nod to everything he said.”

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