May 25, 2005

PM to Abbas: Let's coordinate pullout

By URIEL HEILMAN
WASHINGTON

Facing growing opposition at home to his Gaza withdrawal plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used his speech Tuesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to challenge Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to coordinate the withdrawal with Israel.

Sharon demanded that Abbas translate his verbal condemnation of terrorism into real action on the ground, calling upon the Palestinians to coordinate elements of the disengagement plan with Israel as a confidence-building measure. Abbas is due in Washington later this week, where he will have his first encounter with the American president-the first White House meeting by a Palestinian leader since President George W. Bush took office in 2000.

Abbas is expected to ask Bush to pressure the Israelis to begin implementing the road map peace plan as soon as Israel withdraws from Gaza. Sharon, in his speech, said the Palestinians still had commitments to meet under the road map.

"The successful coordination of the disengagement plan will enable us to embark on a new era of trust and build our relationship with the Palestinian Authority," Sharon said, a far cry from his touting of the disengagement plan's unilateralism back when Yasser Arafat was alive. "In this pre-road map phase-and we are still in the pre-road map phase," he cautioned, "we see great opportunities with Chairman Abbas."

Israel already has taken measures to try to help Abbas consolidate his position, Sharon said, and Israel is willing to hand over more Palestinian cities to P.A. control and release additional Palestinian prisoners, including 400 men that Sharon said he would present to the government once he returns to Israel. Israel already has released 500 Palestinian prisoners.

"Israel does not intend to lose this opportunity," Sharon told the packed crowd of AIPAC supporters at the Washington Convention Center, some of them waving small Israeli and American flags. "We will do our utmost to cooperate with the new Palestinian leadership and will take the needed measures to help Chairman Abbas."

But, Sharon said, Abbas' positive statements "must be translated into real actions on the ground."

"Until now, terrorist activities have not yet ceased. The smuggling of weapons and arms production continues and there is no real prevention of terrorist actions," Sharon said. "Appeasing the terrorists and engaging them in the Palestinian political system will only strengthen them."

The prime minister's speech was the culmination of a three-day visit to the United States that included speeches to Jewish audiences and meetings with Jews in Washington and New York, where his first public appearance of the trip coincided with an anti-withdrawal demonstration of close to 1,000 people on a Manhattan street.

There were far fewer Jewish demonstrators in Washington protesting Sharon's disengagement plan, though they outnumbered the three dozen or so pro-Palestinian demonstrators that had stood outside the site of the AIPAC conference the day before. And unlike the prime minister's speech in New York, which was interrupted several times by hecklers, only a couple of people in a crowd of about 5,000 tried to shout down Sharon at the AIPAC event.

Sharon did not schedule meetings with any Bush administration officials during this visit, which focused solely on American Jews and was timed to coincide with AIPAC's annual policy conference-its largest ever, according to organization officials.

Aside from the 5,000 or Israel supporters who came to the conference-making it the largest American Jewish conference of the year-more than half the members of the US Senate and House of Representatives dropped by, most of them at a gala dinner Monday night. Their names were read in a roll call at the dinner, which served as an opportunity for members of Congress to brandish their pro-Israel credentials to the well-moneyed and powerful group.

The four leaders of the House and Senate each delivered speeches well peppered with applause lines. And for one night at least, Democrats and Republicans sounded exactly the same.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Republican: "Israelis are a courageous people."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat: "When it comes to the peace and security of Israel, there is no partisan divide."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrat: "America's commitment to the safety and security of the State of Israel is unwavering."

Speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert, Republican: "A credible Palestinian government is one that can and will stop terrorism against Israel."

The conference in Washington underscored the key difference between the Unites States' relationship with Israel and that of nearly every other country on earth. Here, Israel is warmly embraced by politicians across the political spectrum. The Ariel Sharon spoken of in Washington bears no resemblance to the warmonger often cited in the capitals of Europe. At AIPAC, even the Libyans saw fit to attend; two Libyan representatives came to the Monday night dinner, according to AIPAC officials.

To be sure, plenty of AIPAC conference goers, like many American Jews, oppose Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan. But the consensus at the conference was that the AIPAC event was not the place to show it, and the few audience members who wore orange pins in solidarity with Israel's settlers applauded the prime minister during his speech.

"Pretty much everyone is toeing the AIPAC line," said Michael Turk, who came to the conference from Long Island, in New York.

"On a personal level, many of the Jews here feel that until the Palestinians take more concrete plans to stop terrorism, disengagement will not work," he said. "But when we lobby on behalf of AIPAC, AIPAC has asked that we lobby as a united Jewish front, and we will lobby Congress for the disengagement plan. In public meetings with Congress, I will take that position."

This year's conference was focused not so much on the disengagement plan, which has about the same level of support among American Jews as it does among Israelis, but on the U.S.-Israel alliance, Iran's nuclear ambitions and democratic reform in the Arab world.

US Secretary of State Condolleeza Rice, in a speech to AIPAC on Monday, said the U.S.-led war in Iraq has helped encourage democratic reform movements in Arab autocracies all over the Middle East and around the world. She said Bush would press Abbas to democratize the Palestinian Authority and clamp down on terrorism.