Sharon floats proposal to dismantle outposts

Skepticism greets plan for `unilateral' measures

November 24, 2003|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon disclosed the existence of a proposed plan to dismantle some Jewish settlements in an attempt to restart the peace process. But Sharon's political foes, Palestinian officials and the Israeli public responded yesterday with a considerable show of skepticism.

Sharon told his Cabinet yesterday that a plan for "unilateral" Israeli steps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - details of which had been printed in all the major Israeli newspapers that morning after a series of well-orchestrated leaks by senior members of Sharon's staff - is under consideration. But Sharon did not discuss the details or specifically confirm the content of the Israeli news media reports.

Israel's dismantling of settlement outposts - small, unauthorized offshoots of Jewish settlements in the West Bank - is called for by the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map, the implementation of which collapsed over the summer amid a flurry of mutual recriminations.

But Sharon's plan - even if it exists, for now, only in the form of a carefully floated trial balloon - marks the first time his government has raised the possibility of Israel's acting to uproot established Jewish settlements in the absence of Palestinian concessions.

Critics were quick to point out that Sharon spoke only of the potential relinquishing of difficult-to-defend settlements in the Gaza Strip and a few of the more isolated Jewish communities in the West Bank. But other observers saw it as a potentially significant step - if the Israeli leader follows through.

After seven months of heightened hopes and bitter disappointments over the road map - and the grinding day-to-day reality of more than three years of conflict - Israelis and Palestinians alike are inclined these days to look for action rather than words on the peace front.

"Anybody who is not skeptical has been on a different planet these last three years," said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a Hebrew University professor of political science and communications. "Whether Sharon is serious or not is very hard for anybody to tell - and until the first settlement is actually evacuated, I don't think anyone can know for certain."

Yesterday, Sharon struck a conciliatory stance toward the hard-liners in his government, telling ministers that no new measures had been decided upon and assuring them that any new plan would be put to a Cabinet vote.

Even so, the prime minister's rightist allies threatened to bolt if the proposal were to go forward - a move that would bring down Sharon's ruling coalition and force him to seek new governing partners.

"The removal of even one settlement automatically places us outside the government," said Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the hawkish National Union Party.

The opposition Labor Party said, in effect, that when it came to Sharon giving up settlements, it would believe it when it saw it.

"The fact is that not one settlement has been removed, construction hasn't been frozen, and he's barely removed a token illegal outpost or two," said Labor lawmaker Ophir Pines.

But Pines added: "If he does follow through and implement these difficult, even painful moves, he would find a partner in Labor."

In recent weeks, Israel and the Palestinians have been working to position themselves for an expected meeting between Sharon and new Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

But the process has been moving slowly, and the two men's first talks as leaders are unlikely to be held before the four-day Muslim feast marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The holiday, Eid al-Fitr, whose start is determined by the sighting of the new moon, will probably begin tomorrow.

Palestinians dismissed the reported Sharon proposal as mere jockeying in advance of those talks. "These are public relations moves only," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said.

According to accounts published in yesterday's editions of all major Israeli newspapers, the plan is a contingency one, meant to be put into effect if no other means of restarting the peace process is found.

But Sharon's government stressed that it remains committed to the road map as the peace plan of choice.

Under the reported terms of the Sharon plan, Israel would move some Gaza settlers to the Negev Desert and others to larger settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Successive Israeli governments have demonstrated an aversion to giving up territory under fire, and even some of Sharon's more moderate allies were dismayed at the idea of pulling out of Jewish settlements while fighting continued.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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