Sharon tells Palestinians leaders, stop attacks or we'll set border

West Bank dividing line would favor Israel, he says

December 19, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HERZLIYA, Israel - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave Palestinian leaders an ultimatum last night - either they stop violence and return to negotiations or Israel will take steps on its own to "disengage" and declare a provisional border.

Under Sharon's plan, the Israeli army would take its troops out of land ceded to the Palestinians and deploy them to an Israeli-declared dividing line along the West Bank. Palestinians would receive far less land under the plan than the United States envisioned under its peace plan, the "road map."

Sharon said that such unilateral moves would be taken only if the stalled U.S.-backed peace plan fails to materialize. He did not set a firm deadline, but he said a decision would be made "in a few months."

Sharon's speech was billed as a significant foreign policy address, coming at the end of a security conference that attracts prominent speakers and guests.

"We're interested in conducting direct negotiations, but do not intend to hold Israeli society hostage in the hands of the Palestinians," Sharon told a worldwide television audience, including those watching the Arab Al-Jazeera network, which was allowed to have a camera crew inside the hall. "I have already said - we will not wait for them indefinitely."

The prime minister warned that "through the disengagement plan, the Palestinians will receive much less than they would have received through direct negotiations as set out in the road map."

But he acknowledged that some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza would have to be evacuated for his plan to work.

Israelis and Palestinians have blamed each other for the failure of the road map, and despite weeks of behind-the-scenes talks, they have been unable to make any progress in advancing the peace initiative or reviving a cease-fire that abruptly ended this past summer in a wave of violence.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told the Reuters news agency that he was "disappointed to hear that he is threatening the Palestinians."

"I was expecting something new," Qureia said. "We are committed to reaching a permanent agreement and to put an end to the conflict. If Mr. Sharon is ready to start negotiations, we can do it sooner than anybody can expect."

More conflict

As the leaders talked, violence flared elsewhere.

Early yesterday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed four Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus during searches for a group that had tried to carry out a suicide bombing last week. Last night, four Israelis were hurt when rocks were thrown at them in the West Bank, and another was wounded in a shooting incident.

Sharon's 24-minute address had been the subject of days of anticipation by the Israeli media and by a public searching for an alternative solution to the deadly violence that plays out daily here.

The speech was described as Sharon's most comprehensive political plan after years of relying on the military to end the fighting. It did represent a significant change for Israeli leaders, in that at least some are now resigned to the position that agreeing to a Palestinian state means giving up on their dreams for a greater Israel encompassing all of the West Bank and Gaza.

Short on specifics

In many ways, the address fell short of expectations - it did not specifically spell out the unilateral steps the prime minister said he is prepared to take. Many parts were purposely vague, designed to ease the fears of critics and U.S. officials.

The script closely followed what Sharon and his top aides have hinted for the past week, and with much less blunt language. Sharon did not use the word evacuate when talking about settlements, preferring the phrase "change in deployment." He also did not refer to borders, calling the division a "provisional security line."

Sharon also was careful to say that he would not abandon the road map, calling the plan "the best way to achieve true peace." He said that disengagement could be done simultaneously with the provisions laid out in the road map.

The prime minister's careful wording reflects internal and external sensitivities regarding how to resolve Israel's conflict with the Palestinians that has raged for more than three years.

American officials have criticized Sharon's disengagement plan, and they reiterated their concerns after the speech.

"The United States believes that a settlement must be negotiated, and we would oppose any Israeli effort to impose a settlement," press secretary Scott McClellan said in Washington last night. McClellan also urged Sharon and Qureia to hold face-to-face talks "very soon."

Qureia also is making a second attempt to convince militant groups to enter into a cease-fire. He failed to secure an agreement to halt the violence a week ago.

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