Abbas to ask Bush to stop expansion of settlements

By Arnon Regular and Aluf Benn

Haaretz

Iyar 16,5765

During his meeting Wednesday with U.S. President George Bush, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will focus his efforts on ensuring that Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August is not accompanied by the expansion of settlements.

As Abbas departed Tuesday for his first visit to the White House since being elected in January, Palestinian Authority officials were trying to lower expectations. The Palestinians had hoped to obtain a public American statement regarding the resumption of the political process after the completion of the disengagement plan.

But Palestinian sources said Tuesday that the PA does not expect the Bush-Abbas meeting to yield significant acievements. The talks, they added, will also focus on garnering economic aid to the PA.

Palestinian sources said the PA expects the administration to pressure Israel to accelerate the coordination of the disengagement, especially regarding the transfer of control of the settlements to the Palestinian security forces after the pullout. They said they also wanted to coordinate efforts with Israel to ensure calm in the Strip during the evacuation.

Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath said Tuesday that the PA would "try to get American guarantees that the pullout from Gaza and the northern West Bank will not be the end, but we believe the Americans will not make any significant move before the end of the withdrawal from Gaza."

Shaath added that as far as the Palestinians are concerned there is no guarantee that the withdrawal will take place at all. "The disengagement is a unilateral plan. First came the [Jewish] holidays, then they postponed the withdrawal and Sharon can also cancel it unilaterally. The greatest danger is that during the withdrawal Israel will unilaterally expand the settlements," he said.

The Palestinians coordinated Abbas' itinerary in the U.S. with the American consulate in East Jerusalem and with European officials. Palestinian sources said the administration has indicated it will not address final status issues, as Abbas is demanding, until the completion of the pullout from Gaza. The administration will also refrain from making more demands of Israel during the evacuation, they said.

Abbas hinted on Monday that the PA may link its efforts to ensure calm during the evacuation to Israel's readiness to halt the construction in the settlements. "Peace and security cannot exist together with the continued settlements," he said.

At the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference in Washington on Tuesday, on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon commended Abbas for his "strategic decision" to denounce violence and terror. However, Sharon said Abbas' statements "must be translated into real action on the ground."

He added that acts of terror had yet to cease and that the smuggling and production of arms was continuing.

Sharon said that if the disengagement was coordinated with the Palestinians it could usher in a "new era of cooperation."

"We will do our utmost to cooperate with the new Palestinian leadership," he said.

Sharon, who received enthusiastic applause from the 4,000 delegates at the AIPAC conference, said the disengagement would enable Israel to ensure that the large settlement blocs in the West bank remained an inseparable part of Israel.

The administration tried to arrange a meeting between Sharon and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday, but Sharon told reporters "it didn't work out." Sharon did not want to hold work meetings with American officials on his visit, apparently wishing to avoid American pressure on him to help Abbas.