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Israeli Envoy Explains Gaza Settlement Removal Plans

An Israeli envoy met senior Bush administration officials to explain Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to remove Jewish settlements from the Gaza strip. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acknowledged the Gaza pullout would be unilateral action, but said it would be consistent with President Bush's vision of a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.

Mr. Olmert met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and later at the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney on a hastily-arranged Washington mission, aimed at easing U.S. misgivings about Mr. Sharon's plans for Gaza.

The Bush administration has been wary about the Sharon initiative, on the one hand supporting the removal of Gaza settlements, but at the same time expressing concern about any effort to circumvent the international "Roadmap" to peace by imposing a settlement.

In a talk with reporters here, Mr. Olmert conceded that the intended action in Gaza was unilateral, but insisted that it was "within the framework" of the vision for peace outlined by President Bush in his Middle East policy statement of June 2002.

The Israeli official said there was no sign the Palestinians are ready to engage in a peace dialogue or crack down on terrorism. He said, under the circumstances, the Sharon government feels there is "no need to wait" on action in Gaza.

"What we are interested in is to reduce the level of collision and confrontation, which is a daily event that creates difficulties - that is a source for bitterness and for sometimes unnecessary confrontations - to the inevitable minimum," he said. "And since, at the end of the day, according to the president's vision, according to the agreement of most of the Israelis, Israelis will not remain in Gaza anyway, then we are ready to pull out now when we will be ready for it soon, not as a concession for the Palestinians, but as an improvement of the living conditions of many Israelis."

Mr. Olmert said plans for leaving Gaza, which would include relocating and compensating thousands of settlers, would be ready by the second half of this year, but he gave no indication when actual dismantling of settlements might occur.

He said disengagement from Gaza would put Israel into what he termed a "more comfortable parking position" as it awaited Palestinian readiness to negotiate.

The Israeli deputy prime minister, a former mayor of Jerusalem, also held out the prospect that Israel might reconsider the route of some segments of its controversial barrier in the West Bank, if security conditions improved. But he said that is a distant prospect at present.

The United States has supported Palestinian complaints that the barrier, among other things, could prejudge the boundaries of a future Palestinian state. The Bush administration has said it will deduct funds from Congressionally-approved loan guarantees for Israel because of that project and settlement-building in the West Bank.