Sharon acknowledges peace likely will cost some settlements

Remarks coinciding with effort to shape plan

April 14, 2003|By Laura King | Laura King,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JERUSALEM - In his most explicit pledge yet to relinquish some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in order to achieve a peace accord with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in an interview published yesterday that "I know we will have to part with some of these places."

However, in the interview with the newspaper Haaretz, the prime minister also took an uncompromising line on the Palestinians' long-standing demand for the "right of return" for Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes inside Israel with the advent of statehood. Sharon said it must be clear from the outset of any peace talks that this point is not negotiable.

In a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, the prime minister said he saw the toppling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a potentially powerful impetus for resolving long-festering Middle Eastern disputes, including Israel's bitter 30-month-old conflict with the Palestinians.

"The action carried out in Iraq generated a shock felt through the Middle East, and it brings with it a prospect of great changes," Sharon said. "There is an opportunity here to forge a different relationship between us and the Arab states, and between us and the Palestinians. That opportunity must not be neglected."

The prime minister's comments came as Israel prepared to launch a political offensive against some provisions of a soon-to-be-unveiled peace plan known as the "road map." Israeli media reports have said that in talks to be held in Washington this week, senior Sharon aide Dov Weisglass will present U.S. officials with "red lines" - conditions Israel finds unacceptable - and will seek more than a dozen changes to the plan drawn up by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

The roughly 150 Jewish settlements, built on land seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War, lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Palestinians consider the settlers to be usurping territory that is rightfully part of their own future state, while the settlers and their supporters believe that they have a biblical claim to the land and that the settlements are a crucial element of Israel's security.

Sharon's comments drew quick recriminations from leaders of the settlement movement, which has long regarded the former general as one of its champions.

"It is a betrayal of the movement he nurtured for decades," said settler spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yossef.

In the interview, Sharon mentioned by name two West Bank settlements rich in biblical associations - Shiloh, where the Book of Joshua relates the dividing of land among Israelites, and Beit El, where Jacob dreamed of angels ascending a ladder to heaven.

"Look, we are talking about the cradle of the Jewish people," he said. "Our whole history is bound up with these places ... Shiloh, Beit El. And I know that we will have to part with some of these places. ... As a Jew, this agonizes me. But I have decided to make every effort to reach a settlement."

The "road map" is to be unveiled after the Palestinian prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, assembles and presents a Cabinet. Yesterday, Palestinian sources said Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, had presented a list to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat that included reform-minded lawmakers and that placed the powerful Interior Ministry portfolio in the new prime minister's hands.

Abbas has been sharply at odds with Arafat as he tries to form a government, with Arafat reportedly pressuring for the inclusion of loyalists who would be more pliable and thus allow him to hang on to more behind-the-scenes power. Arafat had his own choice for interior minister, a job that involves overseeing security reforms sought by international mediators.

The road map calls for an end to Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank and Gaza but does not explicitly address the fate of existing settlements. It envisions the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

"One has to view things realistically," Sharon said in the Haaretz interview. "Eventually there will be a Palestinian state."

But he ruled out any compromise on the "right of return," which for decades has been one of the central tenets of the Palestinian struggle. Israel has always held that the demographic change caused by an enormous wave of returning Palestinian refugees from 1948 and of their descendants - who now number in the hundreds of thousands - would essentially destroy the Jewish character of the state.

"If there is ever to be an end to the conflict, the Palestinians must recognize the Jewish people's right to a homeland and the existence of an independent Jewish state in the homeland of the Jewish people," Sharon said.

Laura King is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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