The United States and Israel are discussing a fresh approach to Mideast peace in which the Bush administration would embrace Israel's proposal to give up settlements in Gaza as a way of encouraging Palestinians and Arab states to take their own steps toward peace, senior U.S. and Israeli officials said.
The plan would represent an acknowledgment that productive talks between Israel and the Palestinian leaders are not possible at this moment, and that unilateral steps proposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the settlements could provide an interim step that presents the best hope of progress toward ultimate success.
Elements of the plan include Israel's vacating possibly all of Gaza and as many as 17 West Bank settlements, giving Egypt responsibility for security on the Gaza border and moving a planned fence separating Israelis and Palestinians closer to Israel's 1967 borders.
Israeli officials describe the Sharon plan as an "interim arrangement" but suggest it could be in place for a long time. In talks with U.S. officials, Israeli officials also appear to be seeking to trade Israeli withdrawal from territories for receiving greater flexibility to build housing in West Bank areas it would want in a final peace deal.
The peace process has been deadlocked for months, stuck in a cycle of violence, and the administration has faced mounting criticism from Arabs and Europeans for appearing to be disengaged from the crisis. The administration wants to offer a plan to promote Mideast democracy at the June summit of industrialized nations, but Arabs have warned they will not be receptive if the United States is perceived to have given up on Mideast peace.
"One of things you'd have to make clear is that whatever is done is an interim measure, that the goal is to get back on the 'road map,' get back to the June 24 speech," said Sean McCormack, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, referring to the U.S.-backed peace plan and the president's 2002 speech. "The goal of that speech of course is a two-state solution and negotiated settlement of all final status issues. These interim measures are not in lieu of that."
Three senior U.S. officials traveled to Jerusalem last week to discuss with Sharon how the proposal would mesh with the road map's plan to eventually create a Palestinian state. While the officials -- Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and NSC Senior Director Elliott Abrams -- have not publicly discussed their trip, interviews with senior officials suggest the administration views the plan as a vehicle to demonstrate progress, in part by wringing concessions from Israel on issues such as the fence being built on the West Bank.
U.S. officials stressed that they were not negotiating with Israel but instead were offering ideas. "We have been listening to the prime minister's ideas and helping the prime minister and his people think through them," McCormack said. "But it is an Israeli initiative, a Prime Minister Sharon initiative."
Israeli Ambassador Danny Ayalon said that once the Sharon plan is implemented, the peace process would be in "a parking place." Israel, he said, "is filling in our parts of the puzzle. When the Palestinians do their part of the puzzle, that would be a basis for moving on" to the next stage.
Bush administration officials are sensitive to the possible political fallout from Sharon's plan, including the possibility that his right-wing government would fall. Simon Peres, leader of Israel's Labor Party, who met earlier this week with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, said U.S. officials are mulling the possibilities posed by Sharon's plan.
"The idea of a withdrawal from Gaza is a good one," Peres said in an interview. "But it is too general and not specific enough to be fully adopted or fully rejected. They [U.S. officials] are now looking at what is the maximum that can be squeezed out from this idea."
Sharon appears willing to consider many of the U.S. objections on the route of the fence Israel is building through the West Bank -- which Israel says is for security reasons and Palestinians charge is for establishing the final borders. Sharon appears ready to abandon a proposed second fence around Ben Gurion Airport, another fence that would extend to the settlement of Ariel deep in the West Bank, and an Eastern fence that would cut through the Jordan Valley, officials said.
Sharon is also seeking assurances the United States would not support other diplomatic initiatives until Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is removed from power and that Israel could respond forcefully if it is attacked from areas it vacates.
Sharon also wants the Bush administration to prod Egypt and Jordan to step up economic cooperation with the Palestinians so the occupied territories are less dependent on the Israeli economy -- a move that some analysts say would weaken the already battered Palestinian Authority even further. He also has proposed giving Egypt responsibility over security for the Philadelpi Road, a narrow border strip between Gaza and Egypt.
"What we've been thinking about with the Israelis is how can we at the same time empower, enable and encourage the Palestinians to move down the road toward the two-state solution as outlined in the June 24 speech," a senior administration official said.
U.S. officials added they are reviewing steps neighbors such as Egypt and Jordan can take, including pressuring the Palestinians to act against militants, providing assistance to the Palestinians and strengthening ties with Israel.
In discussions, Israeli officials have been eager to win an understanding with the United States on a key element of the road map -- a definition of a settlement freeze. They would like the flexibility to add housing units in settlements that, under almost any proposed peace plan, would be ceded to Israel.