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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisted on firmer American promises for the final settlement agreement laid out to him in the letter President George W. Bush sent last week. Sharon wanted and received declarations that Israel will not withdraw to the Green Line in the West Bank, and that the Palestinian refugees will not return to Israeli territory. But the Americans also insisted on something, to which Sharon surrendered. They demanded that the paragraph regarding borders include the condition that the changes in the cease-fire lines must be agreed on by both sides.

The cautionary remark, which was appended to the Bush letter during the week that preceded Sharon's visit to Washington, was no coincidence. It expresses a clear tendency of American policy: The United States appointed itself in the past year as the governess of the Palestinians and the guardian of their rights, as the custodian of a future Palestinian state. The same Bush who is considered an enthusiastic supporter of Sharon, who backs every assassination and every Israeli military action in the territories, has quietly created an American "trusteeship" for the Palestinians. Bush was the first president to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and he is trying to fill his words with substance. In the absence of a responsible Palestinian leadership, America is taking its place in the talks with Israel, at least until Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat goes.

There are several expressions of this American trusteeship, which were mentioned in Bush's letter to Sharon and in accompanying documents. The most important of them is the preservation of reserves of land for a Palestinian state in the West Bank which will enjoy reasonable territorial contiguity. For that purpose, the United States is demanding that Sharon freeze the expansion of the settlements, remove the outposts, and ease the route of the separation fence.

The Americans are also trying to maintain the rickety government apparatus of the Palestinian Authority, as an infrastructure for other times, and therefore they have demanded that Sharon observe the administrative and economic arrangements of the Oslo Accords, even during these times of violent conflict, and even after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. They want to ensure that Arafat's successors will have a bargaining position in the future negotiations over a final agreement, and this is the reason for the insistence that the border be determined by agreement, which gives the Palestinians a veto over the formulation of the final agreement. And they are making Sharon sign repeated promises that Israel is committed to Bush's two-state vision.

Last year, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, a senior member of the "peace team" in the Clinton administration, proposed the formation of an "American trusteeship for Palestine." His plan was daring, and spoke of placing an international military force in the territories, under the leadership of the United States, which would operate against terror and gradually prepare the Palestinians for independence. For understandable reasons, Bush has avoided taking such risks. He has no interest in endangering Americans in the boiling hell in the territories, and to get involved in a dispute with Israel, which is opposed to the deployment of foreign forces in Gaza and Ramallah.

Even John Wolf's pathetic monitoring team, which came to implement the road map, folded up after a short time. But the administration accepted the central message of the Indyk plan: if the Palestinians are incapable of taking care of their own interests, America has to do so, rather than placing their future into the hands of Arafat and Sharon.

There are of course many problems in implementing this model, foremost among them the weakness of the administration with regards to Israel. Sharon has evaded most of his promises until now. Last week he announced the expansion of the separation fence to Ma'aleh Adumim, a particularly sensitive point, which breaks the territorial continguity in the West Bank into two parts. The letter from Sharon's bureau chief Dov Weisglass to U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, in which Israel once again promised to evacuate the outposts and to find a formula for freezing the settlements, only illustrates the American failure to collect on previous commitments. This is an election year in the United States, and it's a convenient time for Israel to establish more facts on the ground. But even within these restrictions, Bush is doing more for the Palestinians than did any of his predecessors.