Quartet: Gaza plan a `rare opportunity'

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 05-May-04 | Author: Aluf Benn, Nathan Guttman, Shlomo Shamir and Mazal Mualem| Source: Ha'aretz

The international Quartet for advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process yesterday called on Israel to carry out Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to dismantle all settlements in the Gaza Strip, and some settlements in the northern West Bank.

Delegates of the Quartet - the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia - met in New York, and issued a statement praising Sharon, and emphasizing that "the Quartet welcomes and encourages such a step [disengagement] which should provide a rare moment of opportunity in the search for peace in the Middle East."

The Quartet statement emphasized that Israel's plan must lead to full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, "as a step toward the realization of the two state vision."

The Quartet delegates completely ignored Sunday's Likud party referendum that voted against the separation plan. Its statement called for transferring property assets from dismantled settlements "to the Palestinian government, which will reorganize" in concert with international bodies.

The Quartet called for negotiations to arrange a truce and it reiterated past demands that the Palestinian Authority carry out comprehensive security and political reforms.

Relating to a future final status agreement between Israel and the PA, the Quartet held that issues of borders and refugee settlement have to be resolved through talks between both sides, and should be based on UN Security Council resolutions and the Saudi initiative - which calls on Israel to return to the 1967 Green Line.

Affirming Bush's two state vision, the Quartet called for "an end to the occupation which began in 1967." It did not refer to assurances given last month by Bush in his letter to Sharon indicating that a final agreement would taken into account demographic realities in the territories created by Jewish settlement blocs, and that refugees would return to a future Palestinian state, not to Israel.

U.S. officials yesterday tried to resuscitate Sharon's disengagement plan, after its decisive defeat by his Likud party. Speaking at a news conference held after the Quartet meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had yet received an official version of a new, pared down Israeli plan for a "mini disengagement" from the territories.

Israeli sources yesterday confirmed that no scaled down plan has so far been presented to the Americans. U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice also reiterated yesterday support for the disengagement plan, and she called on other countries to back the U.S. position.

"We have wanted to help in any way we can," Rice said in an address to an Anti-Defamation League conference. "Whatever happens now, it is clear that this is an internal Israeli political decision. It is still our view that [the disengagement plan] is a courageous step toward peace and ought to be supported by the international community."

In Israel, intensive discussions in the political arena yesterday continued in the confusion after the disengagement plan's defeat by Likud. Considering his political options for weeks ahead, Sharon held meetings with opposition leader Shimon Peres, and with his key coalition ally, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, chairman of Shinui.

The Labor Party will support only a full-scale disengagement and not a limited version in a future Knesset vote, party chairman and opposition chief Peres told Sharon at their meeting yesterday. Peres' clarification referred to reports that Sharon intended to present a truncated pullout plan following the overwhelming defeat of his unilateral plan in the referendum.

During the meeting, attended by Labor faction chairman Dalia Itzik, the prime minister updated Peres on diplomatic and security issues. Peres told Army Radio earlier in the day that Sharon has been paralyzed by right-wing pressure.

"Everything he can get approved won't be serious, and everything that's serious won't get approved," Peres said. "The only way is to return to the people, to ask the people what they want."

The cabinet will hold a discussion on the disengagement plan at its weekly meeting Sunday, Lapid said after his meeting with Sharon yesterday morning.

Lapid indicated that Sharon had not given him the impression that he has given up on his disengagement plan. He would probably have to alter the original proposal in light of the Likud vote, Lapid said, but this didn't mean Sharon would make major changes.

Assuming there are no vast changes in the disengagement initiative, Lapid said, "[Shinui] can of course remain in the government." The justice minister also said he discussed with Sharon the option of forming a national unity government with the Labor Party, as well as Labor's reservations about joining such a coalition.

Sharon also briefed Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom about his intention to formulate an alternative disengagement plan, and the two discussed world reactions to the defeat of his proposal.

Shalom said Israel is committed to peace in the region and will do everything to advance it. He said that he would pressure European leaders during his scheduled visit to the continent to urge the Palestinians to put and end to terror attacks, and to carry out reforms in the Palestinian Authority.

Settler sources yesterday claimed Sharon is considering evacuating just five settlements as part of his revised disengagement, instead of the 26 slated for removal under the plan rejected by Likud members on Sunday.

The sources said Sharon wants to dismantle the Kfar Darom, Netzarim and Morag settlements in the Gaza Strip, and Ganim and Kadim in the northern West Bank. The sources added that he prime minister has not ruled out a slightly more extensive evacuation - of the West Bank's Homesh and Shanur.

But the Yesha Council of Settlements dismissed this revised initiative saying even this scaled-down withdrawal would reward terrorism.