WASHINGTON [MENL] — The Bush administration remains concerned that Israel would be forced to suspend its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank amid heavy Palestinian fire and chaos within Israel’s military.
Officials said the administration has sought to address every scenario connected to the implementation of Israel’s withdrawal operation. They said the administration has been briefed on every aspect of the deployment of Israeli and Palestinian Authority forces during the withdrawal.
The key question was whether Palestinian insurgents would launch a massive attack on Israeli civilians and soldiers during the withdrawal. Officials said such a move could torpedo the withdrawal and lead to a right-wing backlash against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
“We are ready for casualties on both sides,” an official said. “The question is will these casualties delay the disengagement.”
Officials said the administration has deemed the Israeli withdrawal as one of the most important U.S. foreign policy goals in 2005. They said President George Bush has taken several steps meant to bolster Sharon’s sagging political standing among the Israeli electorate. Polls last week show Sharon losing badly to challenger Binyamin Netanyahu in the ruling Likud Party.
“We’ve [Bush and Sharon] grown close, and one of the reasons why is I appreciate a person who when he says something, means it,” Bush said in an interview with Israel state television on August 12. “And I hope he appreciates that about me. In other words, I said early on we’re going to join in fighting terror so that Israel could be secure and America secure and other free nations secure. He knows I keep my word and I know he keeps his word.”
Bush has sent to Israel Elliot Abrams, a senior official in the National Security Council and regarded as close to Sharon. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch was expected to imminently arrive in Israel to ensure coordination between Egypt, Israel and the PA, while Gen. William Ward was supervising Israeli and PA military plans.
“I can understand why people think this decision is one that will create a vacuum into which terrorism will flow,” Bush said. “I happen to disagree. I believe the decision that Prime Minister Sharon has made and is going to follow through on will be good for Israel.”
Officials said the administration was pressing for an immediate Israeli withdrawal, despite the failure to complete arrangements with Egypt and the PA. They said the most important aspects of the withdrawal were the replacement of Israeli troops along the 12-kilometer Egyptian-Gaza border with PA forces and Egyptian commandos. Another vital aspect was PA control over insurgency groups during the withdrawal.
“The Israelis have managed to demonstrate great restraint,” an official said. “But the challenge would be withdrawal under fire and how many casualties Israel would be prepared to accept before retaliation. I expect there will be frequent telephone calls from the president and the secretary of state [to Sharon] during the withdrawal operation.”
On Monday, Palestinian gunners fired at least two rockets into Israeli communities in the central Gaza Strip. Nobody was injured and the Israeli military did not retaliate. Hours later, Sharon warned in a nationwide address that Israel would respond harshly to Palestinian fire.
Officials compared the U.S. attitude toward Israel to that during the Gulf war in 1991. At the time, Bush’s father, then president, sent senior officials to persuade then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to refrain from responding to Iraqi missile strikes against Israeli cities.
The current administration has been encouraged by the determination of the Sharon government to implement the withdrawal, which they said could be completed within 10 days. But some officials envisioned a snag from Israel’s military, which they saw as responding often ineffectively to resistance by Israeli withdrawal opponents.
“The administration’s priority is to get through the withdrawal, period,” the official said. “That would be a major achievement for U.S. policy in the Middle East.”