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June 07, 2003

Behind the hype and the headlines

Hakol B'seder ( everything is OK)

Extracts from Haaretz Correspondent, Aluf Benn's report

U.S. President George Bush's determination to throw his weight and prestige behind finding a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Intheir earlier meetings, Bush also spoke of his striving for a solution for the Middle East, but his words were bare.

Sharon came away with the impression that American relations toward Israel remain unchanged. Bush's support of Israel is fundamental and runs deep, and his personal relations with Sharon were maintained as they have been. The prime minister wanted to hear from the president that his commitment to Israel is not dependent on progress in the peace process, and he came away from their meeting satisfied. Already a few weeks ago an understanding was reached between Jerusalem and Washington according to which if the process fails they won't come to Israel with demands.

Sharon asked to make certain that the president is sticking to the diplomatic plan (that's what I have been saying) that they agreed upon last year, according to the Bush speech from June 24, 2002: elimination of terror, reform of the Palestinian Authority, and progress toward a political solution in stages, for which moving from one state to the next depends on their implementation, and not according to a time line.

Sharon told Bush that he wants to continue the process and to try to reach a diplomatic settlement with the Palestinians, but that it all depends on them waging a real war on terror. No "hudna" and no announcements and declarations, but real steps on the ground. Over and over Sharon repeated the importance of the war against terror, until Bush responded that it was unnecessary to raise the matter in all of their meetings, as this was also the position of the Americans.

In their meeting Bush wanted to hear from Sharon how to move from the current state of affairs to the creation of a Palestinian state with interim borders. The prime minister spoke of the importance that the Palestinian state be completely demilitarized, and promised that he would consider territorial contiguity for it.

He was careful about speaking about evacuating settlements, and left the matter vague, with his promise to find solutions to ease conditions for the Palestinians and free them from having to stand at checkpoints between their cities. Roads could be paved, for example.

His speech, which was written with close guidance from the White House, was different from his past declarations. This time he lessened the demands from the other side and showed readiness for Israeli steps. The only concrete commitment that he gave was to immediately evacuate "unauthorized" outposts - a new term inserted by Foreign Ministry attorneys in place "illegal outposts" that preceded it. Their evacuation is not dependent upon Palestinian steps, but all other progress will first depend upon Palestinian action against terror.

The issue of the outposts weighed as a heavy cloud over Sharon's relations with the U.S. administration, which suspected him of being unreliable because of his 2001 commitment not to establish new settlements. The visit by White House envoys Steve Hadley and Elliot Abrams at the end of April was intended as an opportunity for them to see the settlements up close, not just as slogans and subjects of political plans. They saw large cities, with a university and industrial zones, and understand that the settlements can't just be uprooted like that.

Sharon proposed dividing the outposts according to three types: outposts having great security importance; settlements established only in order to provoke and test the government; and outposts with less security importance, which have no need if there is quiet. This formula was accepted by the administration, which in the meantime is satisfied by the promise of immediate evacuation of some outposts, and not to burden Sharon with demands to freeze construction or evacuate older settlements.