WHITE HOUSE approval of Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan is paying off politically for the Israeli prime minister. Several hard-liners in Mr. Sharon's Cabinet last week reluctantly agreed to support Mr. Sharon's plan to remove Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip - where 1.2 million Palestinians live - and a small area of the West Bank. Mr. Sharon cleverly played his biggest fan in Washington, President Bush, off his rivals at home.
Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Limor Livnat, ardent supporters of the settlement movement who initially opposed abandoning the Gaza settlements, couldn't ignore the significance of Mr. Bush's affirmation of Israel's right to maintain large settlements on the West Bank and prevent Palestinian refugees from settling in Israel. In supporting the Gaza plan, Mr. Bush changed U.S. policy, which considered the settlements both there and on the West Bank an obstacle to peace and called for their removal. Now, it is likely they will remain an impediment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
The price of Mr. Netanyahu's support for the Sharon plan was predictable - increased funding for the West Bank settlements. Ms. Livnat won assurances that the security fence being built by Israel would veer deep into the West Bank. The more money and protection given the settlements, the stronger their presence on the West Bank. Those factors will undermine the creation of a "viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent" Palestinian state, which Mr. Bush claims to want and reiterated so in his letter of support to Mr. Sharon. And they contravene the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace, which Mr. Sharon claims he will uphold.
As Mr. Sharon presses forward with his Gaza plan, no one should mistake his exit strategy for an abandonment of his pro-settler roots. The disengagement from Gaza is a practical, political solution to the increasing demands of maintaining a military force in Gaza and protecting Jewish settlers in the most densely populated Palestinian area. Leaders of the settler movement are working vigorously to defeat the Sharon plan at a May 2 referendum of the Likud Party - but, in fact, their settlements will benefit from it.