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Sharon issues separation ultimatum to Palestinians
( 2003-12-19 08:51) (Agencies)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Thursday Israel could separate from Palestinians within months under a go-it-alone plan that would leave them with less land than envisaged in a U.S.-backed peace blueprint.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speaks during a convention about security in the Israeli coastal town of Herzliya, December 18, 2003. Sharon vowed Israel would start its own separation moves which would cost Palestinians land within months if a U.S.-backed peace 'road map' failed.  [Reuters]
Citing Israel's security needs, Sharon vowed in a major policy speech to take unilateral steps in the occupied West Bank and Gaza should Palestinians not do enough to meet the terms of the U.S.-backed plan known as the "road map."

Under his plan, Israel would speed up construction of a barrier through the West Bank, redeploy troops and change the distribution of Jewish settlements to reduce the number of Israelis living near Palestinian population centers.

Israel's justice minister told Reuters that steps could start within three months if the Palestinians did not act.

Palestinians, long wary of Sharon and what they assail as Israeli land grabs, said the proposal was no formula for peace and joined the United States, Israel's closest ally, in calling for a resumption of negotiations without preconditions.

But Sharon said Palestinians had to "uproot terrorist groups" and do more to end more than three years of violence.

"We are interested in conducting direct negotiations, but do not intend to hold Israeli society hostage in the hands of the Palestinians. We will not wait for them indefinitely," Sharon said in the speech in the coastal town of Herzliya.

The Israeli leader, a longtime champion of Jewish settlements on occupied land, drew fire from settler leaders for proposing uprooting some settlements.

He said the aim was to reduce as much as possible the number of Israelis situated in the heart of the Palestinian population. But it could also harden Israel's hold elsewhere and cost the Palestinians land.

"Obviously, 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," he said.


Sharon's moderate Palestinian counterpart said he was disappointed by what he called Sharon's threats to Palestinians.

"If Mr Sharon is ready to start negotiations we can do it sooner than anybody can expect," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie told Reuters.

Washington urged Sharon to meet Qurie very soon. Plans for a meeting have been in the pipeline for weeks.

"Unilateral steps can help the road map move forward if they are part of the road map...or can block the road map," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.

U.S. officials are wary of Sharon creating "political facts on the ground" given the barrier Israel has been building in the West Bank.

Israel calls it a bulwark against suicide bombers, but the barrier deviates from the boundary before the 1967 Middle East war to absorb settlements in what Palestinians call a land grab.

Sharon moved to quell U.S. fears by saying anything the Jewish state did would be in close coordination with Washington and he did not want to harm strategic cooperation.

He also pledged to keep Israel's commitments to the road map by removing settler outposts, freezing current settlements and lifting restrictions on Palestinian areas to ease suffering.

He said that Israel had no plan to redraw borders forever under the disengagement plan but that control would be strengthened over land it saw as eventually coming within the Israeli state.

Palestinians have welcomed the possible removal of isolated settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but not the likelihood this would mean a selective pullback leaving them with a truncated, shrunken state.

The road map calls for a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005 alongside a secure Israel.

A former general, Sharon long saw settlements on land Israel seized in the 1967 war as vital to Israeli security despite widespread international opinion deeming them illegal.

His apparent rethink has caused confusion and consternation within his traditionally pro-settler, right-wing Likud party.

Underscoring the unending cycle of violence, Israeli troops killed four Palestinian gunmen in one of the fiercest battles for months in the West Bank. Israel said its strike into Nablus was to thwart planned suicide bombings.

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