Fearing Islamist Takeover, U.S. Urges Israel, PA Talks on Gaza

Washington fears Islamic extremists might seize control of the Gaza Strip after Israel's planned withdrawal. In a recent message, the Bush administration has asked Israel to try starting negotiations with any Palestinian empowered to take responsibility for the areas to be evacuated, to try to prevent a takeover by Islamic fundamentalists.

The administration supports Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, but some American officials have expressed reservations about a unilateral withdrawal that does not involve an orderly transfer of security responsibility to Palestinians on the ground.

As they see it, the "piecemeal" plan to withdraw in stages only aggravates the potential problem. If extremists take control of the area evacuated by Israel in the first stage, this will be regarded as an Israeli failure that will further damage America's standing in the region.

Sharon's bureau chief Dov Weisglass Sunday night left for Washington and this week he will meet U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other top Bush administration officials, as well as heads of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Weisglass will brief U.S. officials on Israel's contacts with Egypt regarding new security arrangements on the southern end of the Gaza Strip, around the "Philadelphi road" border zone.

Egypt has been conducting separate talks with Sharon and with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in search of security stability in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak exchanged letters last week with Sharon, after his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, had meetings with Israeli and PA officials. Egypt has offered to send experts to help organize PA security forces on the Gaza Strip.

As Mubarak and his associates see it, Arafat must play a central role in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal - they believe that Arafat should be allowed to move to the Gaza Strip, and move freely there. Arafat's presence in Gaza will contribute to its security, the Egyptians believe.

On his visit to the U.S., Weisglass will tell his hosts Sharon is determined to wrest cabinet approval for his disengagement plan - the working assumption in Weisglass' contacts is that the plan will definitely be approved.

The visit was scheduled for ten days ago, before the political crisis erupted over Sharon's submission of the plan to the cabinet.

It appears that having his bureau chief in Washington will help Sharon lobby for his plan at home - in trying to create a sense of urgency for the plan's approval, Sharon will stress American support for it.

The atmosphere changed Sunday in the Prime Minister's Office as a result of the aggressive position Sharon adopted at the government meeting and his recent clashes with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Well-informed sources said Sharon's display of determination and leadership had turned the tables. After weeks of confusion and hesitation in the prime minister's circle, there is now a sense of energy and optimism.

Sharon's message, the sources said, is that his stand in support of his withdrawal plan portrays responsibility and concern for the state's future. Netanyahu instead looks like one prepared to adjust his positions purely for his own personal political interests.