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US Officials Say They Support Original Sharon Gaza Plan - 2004-06-02

The United States said Tuesday it will not accept a watered-down version of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan. The comments came amid political consultations in Israel leading up to a critical cabinet vote on the Sharon plan this coming Sunday.

Officials here are declining to call the U.S. statement a warning. But they are nonetheless making clear that the Bush administration will not support an Israeli withdrawal plan that differs in any major way from the full pullback from Gaza and partial withdrawal from the West Bank, that Mr. Sharon proposed earlier this year and President Bush endorsed in April.

The Israeli Prime Minister is battling for approval for his plan with cabinet members of his own right-leaning Likud party, who want the plan for evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank scaled back or delayed.

In a statement that appeared aimed at Mr. Sharon's cabinet opponents, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the only version of the plan that enjoys U.S. support is the one Mr. Sharon outlined to President Bush six weeks ago.

"The Prime Minister presented a plan that included withdrawal from certain military installations and all settlements in Gaza, and withdrawal of certain military installations and settlements in the West Bank," he said. "It was that plan that we endorsed, that President Bush endorsed on April 14th as a bold initiative that can further the cause of peace. It's that plan that we support now, and none other."

The original version of Mr. Sharon's plan for "disengagement" from the Palestinians, backed by the White House, calls for Israel to withdraw from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern part of the West Bank.

The settlements themselves would be evacuated and transferred to international custody for later handover to Palestinians and not demolished as some Israeli critics of the Sharon plan have advocated.

White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns met with Mr. Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, in Washington Tuesday and are understood to have made clear that significant changes to the Sharon plan would be unacceptable to the U.S. administration.

President Bush came under considerable Arab criticism for endorsing the Sharon plan and for related understandings made at their White House meeting that Israel would retain some West Bank settlements as part of a final peace accord and that the right of return for Palestinian refugees would be limited to an envisaged Palestinian state.

U.S. officials have maintained that the Sharon plan can be a catalyst for reviving progress on the international "road map" for Middle East peace. They also say the so-called "final status" issues of the peace process including borders and refugees would still have to be negotiated by the parties and were not prejudged by the Bush-Sharon understandings.