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US envoys query Sharon on Gaza plan

JERUSALEM -- Visiting US diplomats pressed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday for more details of his proposed withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, as his top security advisers recommended that Israel also dismantle as many as 24 settlements in the West Bank.

The proposed pullout from much of Gaza and parts of the West Bank is part of Sharon's plan to impose a boundary on the Palestinians, at least temporarily, if peace efforts remain frozen.

The prime minister has given few details, raising concerns in Washington and with the Palestinians that he may abandon the US-backed "road map" peace plan. That strategy calls for an immediate end to violence and the creation of an independent Palestinian state by next year, but neither side has moved to implement it.

The US diplomats arrived for a two-day visit to hear more about the withdrawal plan, said Paul Patin, spokesman for the US Embassy. Sharon's office said that the prime minister met with the Americans for more than three hours and that further talks would take place today.

In Washington, a State Department official, David Satterfield, said the envoys were insisting that Sharon take steps within the framework of the "road map" and contribute to creation of a Palestinian state. Sharon's proposals "should move us toward that goal, not complicate it," said Satterfield, the deputy assistant secretary of state for the Near East.

The US team, making a second visit to Israel in less than a month, included Assistant Secretary of State William Burns; Stephen Hadley, deputy director of the National Security Council; and Elliot Abrams, a Middle East specialist at the council.

The trip coincided with confirmation of a newspaper report that Israel is considering leaving up to 24 West Bank settlements.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sharon's national security team had recommended the partial West Bank pullback and a withdrawal from almost all of Gaza. Sharon has not yet decided on the scope or timing of any withdrawal, the official said. That will depend on how Egypt, Jordan, and the United States react to the plan, he said.

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