US envoys to meet Sharon on withdrawal of settlers
A section of the Israeli wall on the West Bank separating the Palestinian town of Tulkarm (left) from the Israeli village of Bat Hefer (right). Photograph: Reuters
ISRAEL: Three high-level US envoys will meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today to begin forging understandings between Washington and Jerusalem over the Israeli leader's "disengagement" plan that includes the uprooting of settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Mr Sharon, meanwhile, won support for his plan to unilaterally move most of the settlers out of Gaza from UN envoy to the region, Mr Terje Roed-Larsen, who called yesterday on the international community to assist in an Israeli evacuation of the Strip.
The three Americans - White House officials Mr Steve Hadley and Mr Elliot Abrams, and Mr William Burns of the State Department - met yesterday with the head of the prime minister's bureau, Mr Dov Weisglass.
They are unlikely, however, to hear any specific details on how Mr Sharon intends implementing his plan, announced earlier this month, to remove 17 of the 21 settlements in Gaza.
The prime minister is also not expected to provide his American guests with any specifics on where exactly he plans to draw a boundary in the West Bank, but will stick to the principles of his plan, and will also discuss the impact on the Palestinians.
Mr Sharon has said that in the absence of any diplomatic progress with the Palestinians, he will take a series of unilateral measures, including moving settlements and drawing a boundary with the Palestinians. In the West Bank, he has spoken of removing only three of the more than 100 settlements, and the dividing line with the Palestinians is likely to follow the separation barrier Israel is building deep inside Palestinian territory.
While the plan is expected to be ready within months, according to some reports Mr Sharon is unlikely to move on it until after the US presidential elections in November. Critics of the Israeli leader doubt he will ever implement the plan.
Mr Roed-Larsen, who has been extremely critical of Israel over the West Bank barrier, was uncharacteristically complimentary of Mr Sharon, telling the UN Security Council yesterday no previous Israeli prime minister "had the boldness and the vision to say he will remove settlers - as long called for by the international community - and initiate a plan for its implementation".
But Mr Roed-Larsen warned that if the Israeli leader carried out his plan unilaterally and did not seek to implement a withdrawal from Gaza within the framework of an agreement, it would further weaken the Palestinian Authority, and bring with it "a growing disorder, chaos and possibly even gang rule in the occupied Palestinian territory".
Palestinian Prime Minister Mr Ahmed Korei, who has responded cautiously to Mr Sharon's plan, yesterday called for international forces to be stationed in the Strip in the wake of an Israeli pullout. "If the Israelis withdraw I think we will be able to run the areas that they withdraw from," he told the European Parliament. "We need international forces or peacekeeping forces at that time," he added.