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Israel Pullback Not To Replace Peace Roadmap, Sharon Says

By James Bennet

The New York Times -- JERUSALEM

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel courted U.S. support on Thursday for his proposal for “unilateral disengagement” from the Palestinians, saying that it would not replace President Bush’s peace initiative, known as the road map.

In a speech and a three-hour meeting here with envoys from Bush, Sharon said he was committed to the road map. He defended his plan for withdrawing from most of the Gaza Strip as necessary for Israel’s security should the Palestinians fail to abide by the peace plan. “We will not wait for them forever,” he said.

Sharon’s aides had previously said he would only implement his proposal once he judged that the road map had failed. But the Bush administration appears reluctant to have anyone make that judgment.

Warning of a potential “security and political vacuum” in Palestinian areas, Sharon said in his speech, “we must be realistic” and prepare other steps.

But, he continued, “I would like to stress that this disengagement plan is a security measure and not a political one. The steps that will be taken will not prevent the possibility of implementing the president’s vision in reaching an agreed settlement if and when there will be a reliable partner on the Palestinian side.”

Palestinian officials accuse Sharon of deliberately undermining the governing Palestinian Authority. They say he wants to avoid negotiations that might force him to yield more land than he plans to turn over unilaterally.

Neither side has abided by its first obligations under the road map, a three-phase plan for reciprocal, simultaneous concessions to achieve a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace in three years.

While Sharon has left the West Bank outposts largely alone, he is now proposing a far bolder step politically -- evacuating most of the established settlements in Gaza. He would take that step not as part of an agreement but as a unilateral measure to draw what he called “security lines.” He said any Israeli steps would be “fully coordinated” with the United States.

Saying he had not seen “even the slightest signs” of Palestinian action against terrorism, Sharon warned that his plan would leave the Palestinians with “much less” than they would have had if they followed the road map.

With the plan under sharp criticism within his coalition government and his dominant faction, Likud, Sharon is trying to build support in the Bush administration, which has been seeking a fuller explanation of his plans. He met Thursday with Elliott Abrams, director of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council; Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, and William J. Burns, head of the Middle East bureau at the State Department.