Hoping to Buttress Sharon, U.S. Urges Allies' Restraint


New York Times

September 4, 2005

WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 - The Bush administration, hoping to strengthen Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the Israeli turmoil after the Gaza withdrawal, is urging allies of the United States to refrain from pressing Israel to make new concessions to Palestinians, senior American officials said this week.

Since the pullout, Palestinian leaders, with some support in Europe and elsewhere, have urged Israel to take further action to stop the growth of settlements in the West Bank and make many other moves. The officials said President Bush and his top aides had begun emphasizing that the first priority in the Middle East was for Israel to complete the pullout from Gaza and for President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to demonstrate control over security there.

The message is expected to be conveyed in mid-September at the United Nations, where the Israeli leader will attend a General Assembly summit meeting and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet with other representatives of the so-called Quartet - the United Nations, Russia and the European Union - that in 2002 put together the "road map" toward peace, aimed at establishing a Palestinian state after a series of phased steps by both sides.

A senior administration official also said: "There's no question that we are aware of the toll that the whole disengagement debate took on Israelis. In our view, the message to Prime Minister Sharon from people in New York should be one of congratulations, not one of new pressures."

"We will be saying to anyone who asks us that if your goal is Israeli-Palestinian progress, you're not going to get there by misunderstanding the Israeli political situation," added the official, who declined to speak for attribution.

With the nearly 9,000 settlers out of Gaza but Israeli armed forces still there, Mr. Sharon has been besieged by a revolt in his Likud political base, with his longtime rival Benjamin Netanyahu challenging him as party leader. There are also fears even among some Sharon supporters that without the Israeli military presence, Gaza could turn into a militant headquarters. If Mr. Sharon is ousted as head of Likud, which opinion surveys show could occur in a party election this year, he would probably have to reshape his parliamentary coalition or call for early elections. He has been prime minister for four and a half years, a lengthy period in Israel's fractious political environment.

Administration officials make no secret of their hope that he survives and carries out steps to accommodate the Palestinians down the road. What those steps might be has been a matter of debate between Washington and Israel for a long time, with the administration frequently calling on Israel to ease checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank and take other actions, but often in vain.

In the spring, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas agreed on various steps to accompany the Gaza pullout, including releasing some Palestinian prisoners, easing conditions in the West Bank and pulling military forces out of five major cities there. But many of these steps have yet to be taken, and in light of Mr. Sharon's struggle for political survival, there seems to be little likelihood that he will agree to more.

"The parties in the Quartet have to move steadily forward on the road map," said Terje Roed-Larsen, the former United Nations envoy in the Middle East. "However, the turmoil in Israeli politics has to play out and it will be extremely difficult before we see what political patterns emerge to allow the situation to move along these lines."

The main negotiating being done in the region is carried out by James D. Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president, who is still mediating steps to complete the Gaza withdrawal, including the question of whether Israel will play a role in monitoring the goods and people going into Gaza from Egypt.

The Palestinians oppose Israel's taking such a role, arguing that it is a breach of their sovereignty, but Israel says that the alternative is to clamp down on Gaza's access to Israel. The administration officials said they were leaving it to Mr. Wolfensohn to try to work out an arrangement.

On a separate front, American and Israeli officials have begun discussions of a post-Gaza aid package for Israel. The Israeli press has put the sum as high as $2.2 billion for development of new communities in the Galilee and the Negev desert.

On the subject of what Israel must do next, Ms. Rice said in an interview with The New York Times last month that the Gaza pullout could not be the only step Israel took to help achieve a peace accord with the Palestinians. But she added that the Palestinians needed to do more to secure Gaza and the West Bank. She said the two sides needed to act in tandem.

Then on Aug. 23, Mr. Bush said that "what must take place next is the establishment of a working government in Gaza," suggesting that it must happen before any further actions by Israel.

Another senior administration official, who also declined to be identified, amplified Mr. Bush's comment by saying that it would take time for Palestinian forces to replace Israeli forces throughout Gaza. "There are still issues to work out," he said, adding that there was no intention to tell Mr. Abbas "it's your problem," but rather to give the Palestinians time to deploy in the area.

American officials said Israel must keep at least some sort of momentum going on issues with the Palestinians, in part to bolster Mr. Abbas. But as a practical matter, they said, there may not be dramatic movements for some time on issues where the Palestinians want to see progress. "We want to see progress in carrying through the agreements to improve the quality of life in the West Bank," said the first senior administration official. "But realistically, what happens now in Gaza is very important. We have to see whether a stop can be put on terrorism in Gaza."