Sharon at the White House

April 11, 2004

A"DEADLY BLOW" to Palestinian aspirations for statehood. In a phrase, that's the expected outcome of Israel's plan to withdraw its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. The assessment comes not from agitated Palestinian leaders but from the plan's architect and chief sponsor, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Just so we're clear: White House approval of Mr. Sharon's Gaza plan will likely defer creation of a Palestinian state for years to come.

Mr. Sharon is to meet with President Bush Wednesday. A presidential nod on the plan would strengthen Mr. Sharon's position as he confronts hard-liners in his cabinet who oppose relocating 7,500 Jewish settlers from the predominantly Palestinian strip and evacuating four remote settlements in the northern sector of the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon's Gaza plan has presented Palestinians with a dilemma. Palestinians want Israeli settlers expelled from land they claim as their own. But they view the Gaza plan as a ruse to maintain Israel's control on the West Bank, where more than 200,000 settlers live, and deny them enough land on which to found a viable, independent state. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia says the Gaza pullout matters only if a West Bank withdrawal follows.

There are those in the Bush administration who are advancing Mr. Sharon's plan as a way to break the stalemate in the peace process, but how can the administration reconcile the Gaza plan with its road map to peace? It has supported a two-state solution that relies on actions taken by both sides that would give Israelis the security they deserve and Palestinians the homeland to which they are entitled. United States policy has been based on a negotiated settlement, not one party's unilateral actions.

If Mr. Sharon actually removes settlers from Gaza and the West Bank, it will be an historic first after 37 years of Israeli occupation and settlement expansion. But Mr. Sharon's bold move won't advance a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Mr. Sharon stated last week in interviews with three Israeli newspapers that in his plan "there is no Palestinian state" and probably won't be for years to come. That is unacceptable. .

With Iraq exploding, the Bush administration may be perfectly willing to let Mr. Sharon control events. But the president should think twice. If an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza defers indefinitely prospects for a Palestinian state, that will compromise the administration's plans to promote democratic reforms in the Arab world. It also will reinforce anti-U.S. sentiment among Muslims who sympathize with the Palestinian cause and stoke the passions of Palestinian suicide bombers.

The Sharon plan will remove settlers from Palestinian land, but no one should mistake it for the beginning of the end of Israel's occupation.

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