|VOICE OF AMERICA|
SLUG: 2-314041 US-ISRAEL-GAZA (L-only)
INTRO: Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met top Bush administration officials in Washington Thursday in a continuing high-level dialogue on Israeli plans to "disengage" from the Palestinians, starting with the removal settlements from Gaza. A senior U-S official said the Israeli plan can be helpful provided it is part of a coordinated process leading to a two-state solution of the Middle East conflict. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
TEXT: The Israeli defense chief met in rapid succession with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on a mission aimed at easing U-S misgivings about the disengagement plan.
Bush administration officials have been concerned that the plan by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to uproot most Israeli settlements in Gaza could create a power vacuum in the heavily-populated strip of land that might be filled by radical groups like Hamas.
And there is concern that unilateral action by Israel would substitute for, rather than complement, the international peace "road map" that has been the basis of U-S Middle East diplomacy since last year.
In a talk with reporters here, Mr. Mofaz said it is very important to get U-S backing for Mr. Sharon's approach, which he said would not close the door to broader peace efforts:
I believe it is a historic move. This plan will create a better security situation for the state of Israel. It will keep the door open to the continuation of the dialogue with the Palestinians, based on President Bush's vision, and the "road map." And it will give us the possibility to continue to fight against terrorism, if it is needed.
Mr. Sharon has said he will start implementing his disengagement plan in the next few months, if there is no progress on the "road map."
It would involve evacuation of 17 of the 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza, which have been frequent target for attack, and which Israeli military officials say require an inordinate number of troops to defend.
Less clear is what Mr. Sharon has in mind for settlements in the West Bank, and administration officials have been pressing him for details. The visit here by Mr. Mofaz came as a trio of senior U-S officials arrived in Israel for similar talks on the issue.
The group includes Deputy White House National Security Advised Steven Hadley, White House Middle East policy chief Elliot Abrams, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns.
At a Washington policy seminar Thursday, Mr. Burns' Deputy -- David Satterfield -- said the Sharon offer of a Gaza withdrawal could be a "moment of opportunity" for a renewal of peace efforts, but only if it advances Palestinian statehood.
In both the talks in Washington and Jerusalem, Mr. Satterfield said the United States is making clear that whatever decisions and taken by Israel, they should be in the context of the "road map" and the Bush vision of a two-state solution, and that in his words, "they should move us toward that goal, not complicate it." (Signed)
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