The Bush administration is currently examining a proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Some Middle East analysts are calling the idea unprecedented and revolutionary for an Israeli leader. Palestinians are expressing concern that Mr. Sharon's proposal for unilateral action may signal an effort to consolidate Israel's hold on Palestinian territory in the West Bank and bring an end to hopes for a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Prime Minister Sharon stunned his supporters in Israel's Likud party in early February when he ordered the government to begin plans for the evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Mr. Sharon says if peace talks with the Palestinians fail, he will remove as many as 17 of the 21 settlements in Gaza, as well as a few others in the West Bank.
The Israeli prime minister says the evacuation in Gaza is only the first stage of a broader plan to relocate all 7,500 Jews from Gaza.
Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who is now director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Mr. Sharon's decision is a major development in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"It is a revolutionary proposal by Israel," Mr. Ross said. "No Israeli prime minister has publicly said anything like this up until now. The mere fact of saying it creates a new political baseline in Israel. What, after all, is the ideology of Likud if in fact leaving Gaza, getting out of settlements in the West Bank, is now established by the prime minister of Israel who was also the architect of the settler movement? So it is a revolutionary development."
Recent public opinion surveys say a majority of Israelis support giving up the settlements as a move toward peace, but there is strong opposition from right-wing groups and the settlers themselves.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who is the chairman of the opposition Labor Party, supports the evacuation of the Gaza settlements.
Mr. Peres, who shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, says removal of the settlers has numerous benefits for Israel.
"If there is a cost for the withdrawal from Gaza, there is also a prize," said Mr. Peres. "I mean people say, what are we going to get in return? We are getting rid of a terrible burden in human terms, in money. We are going to enable our economy to breathe again, many things like investment and tourism. I would describe the move, not as a retreat, but as a new vision for Israel."
While Palestinian leaders welcome any Israeli pull out from the occupied territories, they are skeptical of Mr. Sharon's proposal.
Palestinian leaders like Hanan Ashrawi say they are concerned the Israelis from Gaza will be moved to Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "It is very important that any removal of settlements from the Gaza Strip would not be seen as a license for Israel to consolidate its hold on the West Bank, to augment its settlements in the West Bank," she said.
Ms. Ashrawi says the Israelis should negotiate any pull back from the Gaza Strip. She says unilateral decisions by the Israeli government will never lead to peace between the two peoples.
"No solution, first of all, can be unilateral," she continued, "because unilateralism in this case is the imposition of the will of the strong on the weak, number one. Number two there are other very, very serious issues that have to be addressed. You can not occupy a people for 37 years and then decide, well I will evacuate one part, Gaza, regardless of the havoc and the destruction that I have wreaked there without any negotiation as to what will happen."
Bush administration officials say any withdrawal from Gaza needs to have safeguards to reduce the chances that Hamas or other militant Palestinian groups will fill a power vacuum left when the Israeli army, which guards the Jewish settlements, pulls out.
Mr. Sharon has given assurances that if the settlements are dismantled, he will still support the "road map" peace plan put forward by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
That plan appeared to hit a dead end months ago. The Israelis and the Palestinians accuse each other of not living up to their commitments on the road map, and the current bloodshed, which began in September 2000, is continuing.
Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross says the United States should support Prime Minister Sharon's proposal to evacuate the Gaza settlers.
He says such a move will be welcomed, even in the middle of a presidential election year in the United States. "I don't think the fact that this is an election year should preclude us from doing it," Mr. Ross said. "It is not going to be an issue that is going to be criticized by Democrats. They will embrace any such action. So I think there is nothing to be lost. There is something to be gained. Is there a certainty that it will work out? Absolutely not, but the only certainty we do have is if you don't do anything the situation will get worse." Mr. Sharon has not yet made clear when a pullout from the Gaza Strip would take place, although a so-called "disengagement plan" to physically separate Israelis and Palestinians is likely to be ready by the second half of this year.
The Israeli prime minister is expected to visit Washington soon to discuss his plan with President Bush.