Sharon, under pressure, holds off on Gaza pullout
Bowing to White House pressure, Israel intends to wait until after the U.S. presidential election in November before uprooting Jewish settlements from Gaza, Israeli security sources said on Friday.
Israeli political sources also said that, in a further concession to his U.S. ally, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had dropped the option of moving settlers from Gaza to the West Bank, an idea that had enraged Palestinians seeking to set up a state on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
The security sources said Sharon recognized the Bush administration's concern that implementing his unilateral pullout plan during the U.S. campaign could cause political problems by fueling instability in Palestinian areas -- although Washington denied any link with the election.
Sharon, battered by multiple scandals, suffered a fresh blow when an opinion poll indicated for the first time that a majority of Israelis want him to quit. A Sharon confidant blamed his woes on far-right politicians opposed to a Gaza pull-out.
The Israeli daily Maariv reported that U.S. officials had made clear in recent high-level talks in Washington that they wanted Sharon to hold off on his plan to evacuate most Gaza settlements until after the U.S. election.
The right-wing prime minister has been vague on the timetable for the initiative, which also calls for removing several West Bank enclaves and then drawing a "security line."
He has vowed to implement the plan if a U.S.-backed "road map" to peace with the Palestinians remains blocked.
A senior Israeli political source said a committee formed to deal solely with relocating the 7,500 Gaza settlers had been ordered to consider options only in Israel.
Officials close to Sharon had hinted Israel would consider moving the settlers to existing or new West Bank settlements, but the political source said this had been scrapped.
"The Americans have applied pressure on us not to do this because they believe it would undermine the road map plan," the source told Reuters. "The prime minister does not want to have a clash with Washington over this issue."
However, the State Department denied that the Bush administration had made a link with the presidential election.
"That doesn't sound right to me," spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters. "Our policy is not tied to an electoral timeline," he said later. "To make some kind of linkage with an electoral cycle, I think, is really stretching it."
Palestinians fear that by pursuing disengagement Israel may hope to trade Gaza for permanent control of large parts of the West Bank with its bigger settlements, effectively depriving the Palestinians of land they want for their own state.
U.S. officials see the removal of any settlements as positive as it would remove points of friction between Israel and the Palestinians. But Washington wants guarantees that such moves would not mean the abandonment of the road map.
Israeli media said earlier that Sharon wanted Washington's assurances it would not oppose expansion of West Bank settlement blocs it hopes to annex in a final deal with the Palestinians.
U.S. envoys are due to visit Israel next week for talks to prepare for a meeting between President Bush and Sharon in Washington in late March or early April.
Sharon, meanwhile, was trying to weather the storms kicked up by allegations of corruption and misconduct, which he denies. Much will depend on whether prosecutors now weighing criminal charges decide to indict him in the coming weeks.
A poll in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily found that 53 percent of those surveyed believed Sharon should resign, while 43 percent wanted him to stay on. It was a stunning reversal for the 76-year-old leader, elected by landslides in 2001 and 2003.