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US Envoys in Israel for Disengagement Talks

Three senior U.S. envoys arrive in Israel Wednesday for talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about his plan for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinian territories.

Prime Minister Sharon has said that if peace talks with the Palestinians do not yield results, Israel will soon begin taking unilateral action. That, he indicated, would include dismantling most of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and some in the West Bank.

The prime minister has provided few details of the disengagement plan, but it has already stirred a heated debate among Israelis and Palestinians.

Recent opinion polls show that the majority of Israelis questioned favor giving up settlements as a step toward peace. But, there is vehement opposition from settlers and from right-wing groups, who see Mr. Sharon's proposals as outright betrayal.

Several hundred right-wing rabbis from the West Bank, Gaza and Israel met in Jerusalem on Tuesday to denounce the disengagement plan as a sin and a crime against the Jewish people. The statements were greeted with alarm by left wing members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, who said such pronouncements by Jewish religious leaders amount to releasing the safety catch on a weapon.

The Palestinians are wary of Mr. Sharon's plan. They would certainly welcome any Israeli pull-out from Palestinian areas, which they want as part of their future state. But, they do not want unilateral dictates to replace peace negotiations and they fear that Mr. Sharon's plan will result in de-facto borders, drawn by Israel.

The visiting American team, including Steve Hadley and Elliot Abrams from the National Security Council and State Department envoy William Burns, will want to hear details from Mr. Sharon about his plan. The prime minister will seek to calm American concerns by assuring Washington that his unilateral actions will not undermine broader negotiations along the lines of the "road map" peace plan, which Washington has endorsed.

Mr. Sharon met with his top security advisors Tuesday evening to discuss the disengagement proposals, but no final decisions appear to have been made.

At the same time, senior Sharon advisor Dov Weisglass is expected to meet with Palestinian officials, including cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, to prepare for a possible meeting between Prime Minister Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.