Newspaper interview stirs debate in Israel

Aide to Sharon is quoted as saying pullout in Gaza will stall Palestinian state


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- A top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stirred a hornet's nest yesterday when he was quoted as saying the purpose of Israel's proposed withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank is to "freeze" Palestinian statehood indefinitely, as if suspended in "formaldehyde."

"The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process," Dov Weisglass, senior diplomatic adviser to Sharon, said in unusually candid remarks published by the Israeli daily Haaretz as excerpts from an interview that will appear in the paper tomorrow.

"When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem," Weisglass reportedly said. "Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda."

Israeli Labor Party leader Shimon Peres immediately pounced on the statements.

"You cannot stop the world from turning," he told Israeli Army Radio.

"Whoever aims for a half peace will get a half war."

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Weisglass unmasked the "true intentions" behind Sharon's plan, which Erekat has described as the dumping of Gaza to consolidate Israel's hold on the West Bank.

Palestinian leaders are deeply skeptical of Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan, saying that by Israel sinking its roots deeper into the West Bank it destroys the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state by confining 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians to "bantustans" separated by Jewish settlements.

Sharon has argued that his proposed withdrawal of all 8,200 Jewish settlers from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip, and about 800 from four West Bank enclaves, is a tactical move designed to make Israel proper more defensible.

Absent a viable Palestinian partner with which to negotiate a peace deal, "unilateral disengagement" is Israel's best option, Sharon has said.

The publication of Weisglass' interview coincides with an unprecedented lethal Israeli army incursion into the northern Gaza Strip against militants who fire rockets into Israeli border towns. More than 81 Palestinians have been killed in the operation, which is now entering its second week.

Observers said the bluntness of Weisglass' message could help Sharon win over far-right critics opposed to his plan. Israel's parliament is scheduled to convene next week and may vote on the Gaza withdrawal before the end of the year. This disengagement, Weisglass said in the interview, "supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."

In an effort to contain the fallout from Weisglass' interview, Sharon's office said it backed the road map yesterday as "the only plan that can permit progress toward a durable political settlement with the Palestinians."

In a clarifying statement, Weisglass said he did not rule out negotiations. He contended the newspaper's excerpts were taken out of context.

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