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Ne s itch
Bush Backs Off
itten once by Israel's notori-
ously unpredictable political
ulture, the Bush administra-
tion is shying away from the
commitments it made to secure an
Israeli withdrawal from the Gan Strip.
On Tuesday, May 4, the United States
signed on to a statement by the
"Quartet" — the four-member alliance
guiding the faltering "road map" peace
plan — that drew back from President
Bush's historic recognition last month of
some Israeli claims in the West Bank
and his rejection of any "right of return"
for Palestinian refugees to their former
homes in Israel.
"No party should take unilateral
actions that seek to predetermine issues
that can only be resolved through nego-
tiation and agreement between the two
parties," said the statement, released in
New York after meetings of U.S.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and
counterparts from the United Nations,
European Union and Russia.
"Any final settlement on issues such as
borders and refugees must be mutually
agreed to by Israelis and Palestinians,"
the statement said.
Mutual agreement on borders and
refugees, and a mention in the statement
of a 2002 Saudi Arabian peace initiative,
effectively means a return to the "all-on-
the-table" status quo before the April
exchange of letters between Bush and
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Administration officials suggested that
the overwhelming rejection of the plan
May 2 by Sharon's Likud Party left them
little choice. "We gave Sharon the letter
to shore him up politically back home,
and we're left holding the bag," one offi-
cial said. "It's not helpful."
It wasn't just the dramatic rejection in
the Likud referendum — by 60 percent
to 40 percent — that stunned the Bush
officials; they now question the wisdom
of Sharon, whom they had considered
an astute political player. "No one
knows why he didn't hold a nationwide
referendum instead of a Likud vote," the
The Bush administration made clear
its backtracking did not let Sharon off
the hook. Top White House staffers
rushed to call Sharon after the May 2
vote to confirm his commitment to
withdrawal. "The population of Israel by
and large appears to be supportive of the
Gaza withdrawal plan," the State
Department's Richard Boucher said.