Sharon flies to US to seek backing on Gaza

Ariel Sharon flies to Washington this week increasingly confident of securing the new accord with President George Bush that he needs to convince right-wing sceptics in his own party to back his unilateral plan to "disengage" from Gaza.

Ariel Sharon flies to Washington this week increasingly confident of securing the new accord with President George Bush that he needs to convince right-wing sceptics in his own party to back his unilateral plan to "disengage" from Gaza.

The Israeli Prime Minister, still under the shadow of deliberations by the Attorney General, Menachem Mozuz, on whether to indict him over the "Greek island" bribery allegations, holds talks with Mr Bush on Wednesday. These have become pivotal to his ability to win a referendum of 200,000 Likud members at the end of this month on the disengagement plan.

Two days before he meets Tony Blair to discuss ways to control the mounting chaos and bloodshed in Iraq, the US President will be obliged to turn his attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Sharon is seeking concessions in return for his planned pullout from Gaza and a handful of settlements in the northern West Bank.

Under the plan, the Israeli army would maintain a continuous presence only on the border between Gaza and Egypt. Over the next 18 months, 7,500 Israelis would leave settlements within the strip. Mr Sharon has also identified four remote settlements in the north of the West Bank, near Jenin, from which he would launch a largely symbolic evacuation.

Backing for the plan could be crucial to Mr Sharon's capacity to maintain political momentum in office over the coming year.

The Prime Minister, facing concerted opposition from his far-right coalition partners and vocal elements in his own party, including some ministers, has been seeking to persuade Washington to give guarantees on a permanent future for three of the biggest Israeli settlements, and to make it clear that there will be no right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugee families displaced since the war of 1948.

Mr Bush is unlikely to be as explicit as Mr Sharon had originally hoped. But Israeli officials hope the US will imply that the 1949-67 Green Line should not be regarded as an inviolable border in any final settlement, and that Washington accepts variations if needed for Israel's security. That could give Mr Sharon the room he needs to claim that the three big settlement blocks on the Palestinian side of the Green Line - Ma'ale Adumim, Ariel and Gush Etzion - will remain permanently in Israeli hands, to the inevitable dismay of even moderate Palestinian and other Arab leaders.

Israeli officials said this weekend that they were equally optimistic that the US would deliberately refer to Palestinian refugee families returning to a future Palestinian state. This would be seized on by Mr Sharon's government as firmly denying their right to return to Israel itself. Nabil Sha'ath, the Palestinian Foreign Minister, last week warned the US to do "nothing that will pre-empt a permanent settlement, neither on borders nor refugees or anything". Mr Sharon will press the US and its allies to tell the Palestinian Authority to clamp down on the militant factions, insisting that the disengagement will leave the PA with no excuse not to do so. Israel is also likely to seek firm assurances that the US recognises her right to resume military operations against the factions in Gaza if attacks on Israel from the strip continue.

There is also the question of money. In addition to $5bn (£2.7bn) granted to the Palestinian Authority to start rebuilding the shattered economy of Gaza, the Israelis are aiming to win American guarantees for loans worth an additional $5bn for the development of the Negev desert. This area is seen as a possible future home for more than 100,000 settlers if there is a wholesale pullout from the West Bank.

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