Bush embracing Sharon proposals

washington | For Ariel Sharon’s government, Washington is a town where once-unimaginable dreams can come true.

The Bush administration is on board with the West Bank security barrier, officials who could once barely contain their impatience with Israel have shut out the Palestinians, and the president wants to learn more about the Israeli prime minister’s plans for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians.

The problem with answered prayers, Israel is finding, is that they lead to more questions.

In recent meetings with their Israeli counterparts, top U.S. officials have asked Israel to fill in the gaps in Sharon’s broad outlines of a break with the Gaza Strip and pullouts from remote areas of the West Bank.

“The Americans want details,” an Israeli official said.

Israelis are scrambling to provide those details ahead of a visit to the region by two top White House officials: Steve Hadley, second-in-command at the National Security Council, and Elliot Abrams, the top Middle East official at the NSC.

The two were to have gone to the Middle East this week, but administration officials said the visit has been postponed for the time being — possibly until next week, possibly later.

As soon as early March, Sharon himself will arrive in Washington to present Bush with a detailed plan.

Americans were skeptical at first when Sharon announced his plans earlier this month for a unilateral withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza, but a barrage of Israeli reassurances melted resistance.

Three elements contributed to U.S. openness to Sharon’s surprise announcement: deepening disappointment with the Palestinians’ failure to control terrorists, the Labor Party’s pledge to back the Gaza plan should hard-line pro-settler parties bolt the ruling coalition, and reassurances that the withdrawal would hew to Bush’s vision of working toward a viable Palestinian state.

Ehud Olmert, Israeli trade and industry minister, said Bush administration officials were confident that Israel would not use disengagement as a pretext to choke off a viable Palestinian state and to entrench Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

Details that emerged last weekend reinforced Olmert’s message that Israel was ready to work within the confines of Bush’s vision.

Other officials outlined plans to change the route of the security fence, a pledge that addressed U.S. concerns that the fence was cutting too deeply into the West Bank.

The ultimate American goal is to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table — and soon.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.