Arafat open to plan of Israeli withdrawal

Palestinian leader backs move only as a first step

diplomats meet in Egypt

March 12, 2004|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has cautiously welcomed a plan by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw soldiers and settlers from nearly all of the Gaza Strip and some of the West Bank, as three American envoys met Sharon to hear details of the plan.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom discussed the proposal in Cairo yesterday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher. Shalom was the most senior Israeli official to visit Egypt since Sharon took office in 2000.

The flurry of diplomatic activity, which includes a tentatively planned meeting next week between Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia, comes in advance of an expected trip to Washington by the Israeli prime minister to secure crucial U.S. support for his proposal.

Sharon has said that if he concludes that no progress is possible in the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map, he will unilaterally withdraw settlers and soldiers to new "security lines," evacuating most of the settlers from the Gaza Strip and some outlying settlements in the West Bank.

Sharon has called the proposal a "disengagement plan," but Palestinian officials have expressed concern that it is intended to impose boundaries that would leave parts of the West Bank under Israeli control, carving off land they want for a future state.

Arafat, who initially dismissed Sharon's plan as a ploy, said yesterday that he would welcome it as a step toward a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and as part of the road map, which outlines moves to end violence and resume negotiations leading to a Palestinian state next year.

"We welcome any Israeli withdrawal from any part of our occupied land, from Gaza and the West Bank, in order to reach full withdrawal of the army of occupation and its settlers from all the occupied territories," Arafat said in a speech to the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah.

But any Israeli pullout "should be concluded through a resumption of dialogue between us and the Israelis, and in the framework of the implementation of the road map," he added.

Shalom heard a similar message in his meetings in Egypt.

Israel wants Egypt to help secure the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip to prevent arms smuggling into the area in the event of an Israeli withdrawal. Mubarak reportedly told Israeli journalists traveling with Shalom that Egypt would take measures to secure its side of the border.

The Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, held separate meetings this week with Sharon and Arafat about the withdrawal plan. He told Arafat that Egypt would help reorganize and retrain the Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip to maintain order if Israel withdraws, according to Arafat's security adviser, Jibril Rajoub.

But Maher said Egypt had not considered sending troops to Gaza.

Shalom said Israel would coordinate any withdrawal with the United States as well as with Egypt, which he said was seeking such coordination because it borders the Gaza Strip.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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