Secretary of State Colin Powell says the U.S. embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan was not a wasted effort even though it was rejected by the Israeli leader's Likud Party. Mr. Powell says he thinks the Sharon plan will eventually go forward.

The Bush administration took considerable criticism for endorsing the Sharon plan, especially when it was subsequently voted down by the Likud party rank-and-file. But in a talk with reporters here, Mr. Powell said the idea of evacuating Israeli settlements from Palestinian areas enjoys majority backing among the general population in Israel, and the U.S. embrace of the Sharon plan has if anything helped increase that support.

"The Likud party didn't vote for it. But when we look at the Israeli public, there's an 80 per cent approval rating for this kind of initiative," he said. "And to the extent that the President's embrace of this initiative helped generate that kind of support within the Israeli public, that's useful. And I think Prime Minister Sharon will be able to use the President's embracing of the plan, and this public support, to ultimately prevail in getting the plan approved and we can move forward."

Mr. Sharon proposed a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of four remote settlements in the West Bank under what he calls plan of "disengagement" from the Palestinians, in the absence of a serious Palestinian negotiating partner.

The Bush administration has framed the Sharon plan as a positive step that would help revive the international "road map" to Middle East peace.

Mr. Powell said he was pleased that the authors of the "roadmap", Russia, the European Union and the United Nations along with the United States, were able to give the plan at least a qualified endorsement at their meeting at the U.N. in New York Tuesday.

"I was very pleased that yesterday the quartet reviewed all of this and put out a positive statement that brought the quartet together, reminding everybody that mutual agreement between the two parties is the way in which final-status issues will be resolved. And that we took account of certain realities on the ground. But we did not pre-judge the outcome of final status negotiations between the parties," he said.

When he met with Mr. Sharon last month, President Bush said it was a matter of political reality that Israel would not have to return to its pre-1967 borders as part of an eventual peace accord, and that Palestinian refugees would have a "right of return" only to an envisaged Palestinian state.

The Bush statements, in a letter to Mr. Sharon, drew broad Arab criticism, and Jordan's King Abdullah, who meets Mr. Bush Thursday, is understood to have asked for a similar letter assuring that Palestinians deprived of their land and homes would be compensated in a future peace accord.

U.S. officials initially said there would be no such gesture to the Jordanian leader, but the New York Times reported Wednesday that the Bush administration had reversed its position and that a letter of assurance would be forthcoming.

Secretary Powell would not directly confirm the press account, but he said he and President Bush would be seeing the Jordanian leader at the White House and that, in his words: "I think the King will be pleased."