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US Delegation to Question Israel on Settlement Plans - 2004-02-14

The Bush administration is sending a team of senior officials to the Middle East next week to discuss Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stated plan to dismantle most Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. The U.S. team will also push for changes in the route of Israel's controversial West Bank security barrier.

Though the Bush administration has said it opposes unilateral moves to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, officials here say they are beginning to look more favorably on Mr. Sharon's announced plan to uproot 17 of the 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza.

At a news briefing, State Department Richard Boucher noted that Israeli officials have insisted that such action would be consistent with President Bush's June 2002 policy statement envisioning a two-state solution.

While reiterating the U.S. position that the fundamental issues in the dispute cannot be resolved without negotiation, Mr. Boucher said an Israeli pullback from Gaza could help reduce tensions and open the way to new peace talks.

"We have in the past expressed our concern that neither side impose final conditions on the other," he said. "But Israeli moves such as removing settlements could reduce the friction between Israelis and Palestinians, could improve freedom of movement for the Palestinians, address some of Israel's responsibilities in moving ahead towards the vision described on June 24, 2002. So we'll discuss this issue further with them and with the Palestinian side, even as we press and continue to press very hard for resumption of discussions between the two sides, and for Palestinian action on security issues that we believe are essential for really moving forward."

The U.S. team going to the Middle East is understood to include Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, Deputy White House National Security Adviser Steven Hadley, and White House Middle East policy chief Elliot Abrams.

Mr. Boucher said one issue the U.S. team would want to discuss would be the disposition of Israeli settlers who would leave Gaza.

Officials here have made clear their disapproval of the idea they might be relocated in settlements in the West Bank, a prospect that has also triggered vigorous protests from Palestinians.

The U.S. delegation can also be expected to reiterate concern about the route of the Israeli security barrier, which the State Department has said infringes on Palestinian land in the West Bank and may have the effect of prejudging the borders of a future Palestinian state.

The Sharon government has recently signaled a willingness to at least simplify the looping path of the partially completed barrier, which cuts off some Palestinian villages and farmland from the rest of the West Bank.