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US Officials to Discuss Gaza Settlement Plan with Sharon - 2004-03-11

Three senior U.S. officials are holding talks Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The focus of discussions is the Israeli leader's plan to dismantle most of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdraw the military units deployed there.

Stephen Hadley, the deputy U.S. national security adviser, Elliot Abrams, the National Security Council's Middle East chief and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns are holding talks with Mr. Sharon.

Western diplomatic officials say the main purpose of their mission is to discuss Mr. Sharon's proposal to withdraw troops and remove Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip.

The United States has so far refrained from giving unqualified public support to the plan. Instead, U.S. officials are asking for more information, including the exact number of Jewish settlements Mr. Sharon intends to dismantle.

The three envoys met with Mr. Sharon in Jerusalem three weeks ago, and were assured that Israel has not abandoned its support for the international road map to peace plan, which calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

However, Mr. Sharon said then that Israel is preparing unilateral moves in case negotiations under the road map fail.

In the event of peace talks collapsing, Mr. Sharon has proposed that Israel would withdraw from most, if not all, of the Gaza Strip, and also parts of the West Bank.

The Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, told the Palestinian parliament on Thursday, he would welcome Israeli withdrawal from occupied land, but only if it leads to a complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories.

Mr. Arafat said such steps should be coordinated with the Palestinians and take place within the framework of the road map to peace plan.