WASHINGTON - U.S. peace activists have denounced Thursday's long-awaited speech by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on his plans to ''disengage'' from the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories, even as the White House offered a more nuanced reaction.
Americans for Peace Now (APN), a largely Jewish group that strongly supported the 1993 Oslo Accords, said the implementation of any unilateral ''disengagement'' plan as outlined in Sharon's 19-minute speech, would amount to the unilateral annexation of Palestinian territory.
The group also expressed skepticism about Sharon's assertion that he was prepared to begin removing some Israeli settlements in the interests of enhancing the security of their inhabitants.
''He has hinted at similar action before and never followed through,'' said APN president Debra DeLee. ''He should be judged by his deed, not his words, when it comes to settlements.''
The administration of President George W. Bush, which has generally offered strong backing for Sharon, issued a far more ambiguous statement about his remarks.
Initially Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, insisted that Washington ''would oppose any unilateral steps that block the road toward negotiations under the (U.S.-backed) road map that leads to the two-state vision''.
But some hours later on Thursday, a senior administration official who briefed reporters on background put a more positive spin on Sharon's speech.
He said Washington strongly supported any unilateral measures taken by Sharon, such as easing curbs on the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the Territories and dismantling settlements, which were compatible with the road map, which is co-sponsored by the European Union (EU), Russia and the United Nations.
Sharon's remarks Thursday had been awaited with considerable anticipation both inside and outside Israel.
At home, Sharon faces growing pressure to resume serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, while western governments, in Europe in particular, are concerned about rising anti-western feeling throughout the Middle East and among increasingly important Muslim communities within Europe in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
A number of European leaders have endorsed the so-called ''Geneva Initiative'', a plan formally released Dec. 1 by former Israeli and Palestinian officials, which offers a detailed blueprint for a comprehensive peace settlement between the two peoples.
A poll by two U.S. think tanks released in advance of the initiative's signing found that narrow majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians would support such settlement.
The plan's authors, former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, traveled to Washington shortly after the signing and met with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had publicly encouraged their effort.
But their requests to meet with senior White House officials, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, were turned down in what was taken as an indication of the White House's ambivalence.
Sharon and right-wing partners in the Likud-led government strongly denounced the initiative, as did their allies here, but apparently in the face of growing pressure decided to launch their own plans, about which speculation has been building for weeks.
That speculation was given a major boost two weeks ago when Sharon's deputy prime minister and fellow hardliner, Ehud Olmert, announced he had concluded that Israel could not maintain control of the Territories much longer without risking either its status as a democracy or as a Jewish state.
As the Israeli left has long argued, the Palestinian birth rate in Israel and the Territories is such that in a decade or so the Palestinian population living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will exceed the Jewish population.
In what was widely seen as a trial balloon floated on behalf of Sharon, Olmert then suggested that Israel should opt for a two-state solution that would require territorial compromise, which could even result in Palestinians gaining sovereignty over some neighborhoods in and around Jerusalem.
While his argument was depicted as a major watershed for the senior Likud leadership, most observers had been waiting to see if Sharon would endorse Olmert's views and add details to the vision behind them.
But Sharon spoke for only 19 minutes, reiterating his support for the road map and the long-term creation of a ''democratic Palestinian state with territorial contiguity'' and ''economic viability''.
He also said he was prepared to take immediate measures to ease the hardships of the Israeli occupation and to dismantle scores of illegal Jewish settlements that have sprouted up all over the West Bank since he became prime minister in 2001.
But he also warned that ''Israel will strengthen its control'' over Palestinian areas that it wants to include as ''an inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future agreement'', and would do so unilaterally unless the Palestinians fulfil their obligations under the road map to crack down against ''terrorist'' factions.
At the same time, the Israeli Army would pull back to a ''new security line'' and withdraw some settlements in the Territories in order to ''reduce as much as possible the number of Israelis located in the heart of the Palestinian population''.
Most analysts believe that the ''new security line'' would correspond precisely to the path of the barrier that Israel has been erecting at a furious pace along and inside the West Bank, a path which they also believe Sharon hopes will become Israel's permanent border.
Under that scheme, virtually all of the Gaza Strip but only about one-half of the West Bank's territory would go to the Palestinians.
For that reason, peace activists here, as well as Palestinian spokesmen in the Territories, strongly denounced Sharon's speech, predicting that his threat to take unilateral action would actually set back the peace process.
''Any disengagement plan based on the current route of the security barrier amounts to annexation, not separation,'' said DeLee, noting that the barrier is already cutting deeply into the West Bank, bringing thousands of Palestinians inside Sharon's proposed line of defense.
Similarly, James Zogby, the head of the Arab American Institute (AAI) and another prominent peace activist here, charged that Sharon's threats were entirely consistent with his long-time goal of annexing major parts of the West Bank.
''What Sharon did was to simply verbalize what he's been doing all along -- acting unilaterally to create a new border that is wreaking havoc in the Palestinian community and making the prospects for peace more difficult,'' Zogby told IPS.
He added that the administration's ambiguous response, particularly the remarks of the unnamed senior official, were especially worrisome.
''They initially mouthed the usual words of concern about unilateral actions and then actually appeared to backtrack from that,'' Zogby noted.
''For three years now, they've been saying they supported the peace process, but they've done nothing concrete to back it up other than to put pressure on the Palestinians, the weakest party ... I think they've literally written the issue off, saying that they're concerned but really just feigning concern.''
Sharon's speech also provoked denunciations from the right. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which has close links to the Israeli settler movement and has long cultivated the leadership of the Christian Right in this country, denounced Sharon's plans to uproot some settlements as ''appeasement''.
''A unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of Judea-Samaria (the West Bank) and Gaza will make it easier for terrorists to operate and will send a message that Arab violence will produce Israeli concessions,'' ZOA said.
© 2003 Inter Press Service