The Bush administration has reaffirmed its support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan, even though as approved by his cabinet Sunday it would require further cabinet votes for implementation.
The Bush administration has embraced Mr. Sharon's plan for "disengagement" from the Palestinians as a potential catalyst for reviving the Middle East peace process. And it is making clear it is continuing support for the plan, despite concessions Mr. Sharon made to get the measure approved by his cabinet.
The Israeli prime minister, facing a rebellion from right-wing members of his cabinet, had to engage in some intricate political maneuvers to get the 14-to-7 vote Sunday approving the package, including firing two hard-line ministers before the critical meeting.
The cornerstone of the plan, an Israeli withdrawal from all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank, was mentioned only in an annex to the document approved by the cabinet. The annex sets as a goal the completion of the withdrawal process by the end of next year. But further cabinet votes would be needed to carry out the plan.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli repeated an earlier White House statement welcoming the cabinet vote and calling for preparatory work on the implementation of the Sharon plan "to proceed as rapidly as possible."
Mr. Ereli said despite the political compromises accepted by the Israeli prime minister, the U.S. administration considers the plan to be essentially the same one endorsed by President Bush when Mr. Sharon visited the White House in April.
"What the Israeli cabinet endorsed, and what President Bush endorsed, is withdrawal from all the settlements in Gaza and certain settlements in the West Bank by a definite date. That's what we signed up to, that's the plan that we gave our support to in April. And in our view that continues to be the plan that the Israelis are working on," says Mr. Ereli. "Now, the details of how that plan is implemented is something the Israelis are debating. But in our view their commitment to that plan was endorsed, and remains."
Even though it provides for evacuation of only four remote settlements in the West Bank, U.S. officials have said the Sharon plan can give a jump-start to the stalled Middle East peace "road map," which calls for creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
In an interview Sunday with CNN, Secretary of State Colin Powell said President Bush wants to see a Palestinian state which would include Gaza and what he termed "significant chunks" of the West Bank, with "some realignment" of pre-1967 armistice lines.
Mr. Powell endorsed a comment by Mr. Bush Saturday in France that the borders of a Palestinian state need to be "contiguous." The Secretary said the West Bank cannot be chopped up into "little Bantustans" -- a reference to apartheid-era South African black "homelands" -- and be considered an acceptable state.
Mr. Powell said the President will be do everything he can to help Mr. Sharon implement the plan. He said Palestinians should put an end to terrorism and reform their political and security systems, so that Israel "can feel comfortable" turning territory over to the Palestinian control.