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Sharon seeks U.S. approval for disengagement plan

SHARE Sharon seeks U.S. approval for disengagement plan

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was seeking U.S. backing Tuesday for his high-stakes Gaza and West Bank pullout plan.

Arriving in Washington, Sharon prepared for a White House summit Wednesday with President Bush on his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank in exchange for expanding five large West Bank settlement blocs.

Sharon disclosed the final element of the plan just hours before his departure, naming for the first time the West Bank areas he plans to keep under Israeli control.

About 92,500 of the approximately 220,000 West Bank Jewish settlers live in the blocs Sharon listed. Peace Now, an Israeli settlement monitoring group, estimated that Israel would have to keep about 50 percent of the West Bank to hold on to the blocs.

President Bush said Monday that a Gaza pullout would be a "positive development." However, it appears unlikely the president will declare that Israel can retain parts of the West Bank.

Such a declaration would violate the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which says the borders of a Palestinian state must be negotiated. Bush reiterated Monday that "if Israel makes the decision to withdraw, it doesn't replace the road map."

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Tuesday that Sharon's proposals "destroy any hope for peace," and that the Palestinians would not accept an Israeli annexation of West Bank settlement blocs. Sharon has stopped short of saying the settlement blocs would be annexed, but said he considered them part of Israel.

Sharon is hoping Bush can help him persuade hard-liners in his Likud Party to back a withdrawal. Some 200,000 Likud members are to vote on the "disengagement" plan on May 2, and approval is not assured. The Likud Party delayed the vote from April 29 because of concerns that a basketball championship game in Tel Aviv would lower turnout for the referendum.

If Sharon fails, he could come under pressure to resign.

Sharon has said he would honor the outcome of the vote, but has not spoken about resigning if he loses. However, his vice premier, Ehud Olmert, on Tuesday referred to such a possibility. If the Likud members vote no, "they are destroying the political basis of the government headed by Sharon," Olmert told Israel Army Radio. Olmert said some opponents of the disengagement are trying to topple Sharon.

According to senior Israeli government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Sharon and Bush will exchange letters at their Wednesday meeting, outlining commitments to the withdrawal plan and to the road map.

Sharon's letter will say that Israel will pull out of all 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four isolated West Bank enclaves, the officials said. In exchange, Bush will say Israel has a right to "pursue terrorists," including in areas from which it has pulled out, the officials said.

Israeli officials have said the United States has turned down Israel's request for recognition of West Bank settlement blocs. Olmert said Tuesday that he doesn't expect formal U.S. backing of Israel's plan to retain the settlement blocs Sharon listed Monday night, but that he is confident Washington will give a general approval.

"I wouldn't be surprised if this will be expressed, in one way or another, in the joint statement to be made by the president and the prime minister," Olmert said.

On another Israeli demand — backing for Israel's position that Palestinian refugees not be allowed to return to their former homes in Israel — Sharon could at best expect a murky statement, Israeli officials said.

"There appears to be nothing new," Yossi Alpher, an expert on Israel-U.S. relations, said of the emerging guarantees. "But it appears to be ambiguous enough to allow Sharon ... (by) putting a lot of spin on it, to persuade his fellow Likudniks."

The United States is trying to ensure that Sharon's withdrawal doesn't undermine the road map, which has been made little progress since its launch last year.

However, Sharon was clearly at odds with the road map when he said Monday he plans to "strengthen and develop" the five settlement blocs Israel intends to keep — Maaleh Adumim, Givat Zeev and the Etzion bloc near Jerusalem, as well as Ariel and Kiryat Arba in the heart of the West Bank.

The road map calls for a freeze in construction in the Israeli settlements ahead of talks on a final peace deal. Both Israel and the Palestinians have violated their commitments, while formally declaring they still abide by the plan.

The Palestinian Authority is wary of Sharon's plan. Palestinian officials fear Sharon is sacrificing the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank so he can keep other areas.

Palestinians want to establish a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and demand Israel remove all settlements from the lands, captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

"If Sharon thinks he can trade off Gaza with maintaining large parts of the West Bank he will just add to the complexities," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said after Sharon's speech. "Settlements in the West Bank are just as illegal as those in Gaza."