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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 April, 2004, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Analysis: New start in the Mid-East?
Ariel Sharon (left) and George W Bush at the White House
Mr Bush is already under fire for launching unilateral action
US President George W Bush has given a ringing endorsement to Ariel Sharon's plan to pull Israeli forces out of the occupied territories and dismantle settlements. Middle East analyst Gerald Butt looks at the prospects for regional peace in the light of the US-Israeli ideas.

In the space of a few hours of talks in Washington, proposals for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict took on a completely new complexion.

For the first time, a plan has been drawn up - not only without Palestinians being consulted, but also with minimal reference to their existence.

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and President George W Bush, in their public statements after agreeing on plans for Israel's disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, gave the impression that the deal was done and dusted, sweeping aside all previous peace formulas.

But this impression was misleading, even from Israel's perspective.

First Mr Sharon has to win the support of right-wing doubters within his own Likud bloc for his disengagement plans. He will be hoping that Mr Bush's ringing public endorsement of them will make it hard for those on the far right of Likud to reject them.

Any opposition from centre or centre-left parties will be brushed aside by the prime minister.

And Mr Sharon is likely to succeed eventually in pushing the proposals through cabinet and the Knesset.

Unilateral plan

Even after securing broad Israeli support for disengagement, Mr Bush and Mr Sharon will have to tackle the one glaring omission in their agreement: the fact that it was presented as part of a new American vision for the Middle East without input from the Palestinians.

A Palestinian refugee forced to buy rotten lemons in Ain al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon

Mr Sharon's answer to this criticism is that the plan was based merely on concerns of security and was being introduced unilaterally because of the vacuum in the peace process.

It could also be argued that the Palestinian Authority, battered and bruised by physical confrontation with Israel, and its morale undermined by critics within its own community, is in no position to raise objections to the latest US-Israeli plan.

Furthermore, the issue has been discussed in meetings between Mr Bush and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan.

But leaving the Palestinians out of the consultation process and imposing an American-backed settlement will serve to undermine still more those who still believe that negotiations offer the only way to a lasting solution.

The Palestinians have democratically elected representatives. By choosing to ignore them, the United States and Israel are cutting them adrift, leaving them stranded and powerless.

At the same time, their exclusion will embolden those Palestinians, along with other Arabs and Muslims, who reject the path of negotiations and argue that the only way to deal with what they regard as the arrogance of Israel and its American backer is with the gun and the suicide bomb.

Future possibilities

Assuming, though, that Mr Sharon presses ahead with his plan, the possibility must be that the Gaza Strip becomes a mini-section of a disjointed Palestinian state, economically impoverished and ringed by the Israeli army which will keep facilities within the territory.

Yasser Arafat (left) and Ahmed Qurei
Palestinian leader may not have the stomach to resist
The West Bank, too, would be another, slighter larger, part of the disjointed Palestinian state, playing host to huge Jewish township settlements.

A third possibility that is mentioned from time to time is a bi-national, Israeli Palestinian state incorporating Israel and the West Bank.

But this last idea is flatly rejected by Israel on demographic grounds, with the prospects of Jews becoming a minority in such a state.

And the majority of Palestinians insist on a state comprising, at very least, the pre-1967 Arab-Israeli war boundaries, with Jerusalem as its capital.

The only other option in the foreseeable future, if the Sharon plan were for some reason or other to fail, would be continuation of the status quo.

An end of conflict?

Whatever critics of the Israel prime minister may say, his ideas offer a prospect of the political stalemate being broken.

But, as initial reaction from a wide range of sources, from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to Arab and Islamic leaders, has suggested, imposing a solution may not be in the best interests of the region as a whole.

As EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said, while Israeli disengagement from Gaza would be welcomed, "final status issues can only be resolved by mutual agreement between the parties."

This latest proposed venture comes at a time when US unilateral action in solving international crises is coming under broad international fire and causing embarrassment for Washington's Arab friends.

So the world might be excused for being less than overwhelmingly enthusiastic, much as Mr Bush and Mr Sharon might like to present it as a done and dusted deal.

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