Sharon cancels US trip, will submit new Gaza plan
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon canceled Sunday a Washington visit in the wake of his party's rejection of a U.S.-endorsed Gaza pullout and told a divided cabinet he would have a new plan in three weeks.
"The prime minister has decided not to go to Washington. He will be having consultations here in Israel regarding the disengagement plan," his office said, referring to the initiative voted down by the right-wing Likud one week ago.
Sharon had been scheduled to address a policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israeli advocacy group on May 17, and aides said last week a meeting with President Bush was likely.
But with the fate of the Gaza plan still unclear and an Arab world seething over what it sees as Bush's pro-Israeli slant and U.S. abuse of prisoners in Iraq, the timing for talks with Sharon may not have been right.
"It will take me another three weeks to put the plan together and then I will present it to the government," a political source quoted Sharon as telling his bickering cabinet at its weekly meeting.
Sharon later held talks with his strongest Likud rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose support for the proposed uprooting of all Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of the 120 in the West Bank has been lukewarm.
Israel Radio quoted Netanyahu as telling Sharon the Likud referendum was "binding for all Likud members, including the prime minister."
Sharon has vowed to press ahead with "disengagement" from the Palestinians, sending conflicting signals as to how close he would stick to the original blueprint.
The pullout, Sharon has said, would boost Israeli security after more than three years of violence. Opponents of the move, including pro-settler cabinet members, say leaving Gaza would only "reward terror."
Palestinians fear Sharon's plan is a ruse to annex large tracts of West Bank land they want for their state. Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war.
BUSH ANGERS ARABS
Bush last met Sharon at the White House on April 14, voicing strong support for the pullout plan.
The president enraged the Arab world by announcing at a news conference with Sharon that Israel could not be expected to vacate all its large West Bank settlements or re-admit Palestinian refugees under any final treaty.
Last week, in an effort to reassure Arab allies, he told Jordan's King Abdullah that Washington would do nothing to prejudice final-status talks between the Middle East foes.
Bush further riled Palestinian leaders Saturday by telling an Egyptian newspaper that a 2005 target date, set by an internationally backed peace "road map," for the creation of a Palestinian state may no longer be realistic.
But he added the United States was committed to the road map and he would make this clear in a letter to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie.
The road map charts reciprocal steps toward the establishment of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2005.
Qurie is scheduled to meet Bush's top security adviser Condoleezza Rice in Germany in mid-May for his highest-level session with a U.S. official since taking office in late 2003.
Rejecting Bush's view, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat said creation of a state by 2005 was "more than realistic," while Qurie called for revived peace negotiations with Israel.