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Sharon to make case for West Bank barrier
( 2004-01-24 11:44) (Agencies)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who faces a bribery scandal at home, will most likely visit Washington next month ahead of an International Court of Justice hearing on the legality of his government's controversial West Bank separation barrier, an Israeli official said.

A Palestinian boy holds stones in front of the wall during a protest against the controversial Israeli security barrier separating West Bank village of Abu Dis from east Jerusalem January 23, 2004. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, in unusually candid remarks, said on Thursday the United States was stalemated in efforts to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. [Reuters]
The official, who asked not to be identified, said Sharon had been given "an open invitation" to visit the United States for talks with President George W. Bush.

He said the invitation was extended by Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, during a conversation with Sharon's chief of staff Dov Weisglass, who is in Washington to discuss the barrier.

Sharon is likely to visit before February 23, when the ICJ is due to open its hearing into the legality of the barrier, whose controversial route, which in places juts deep into Palestinian territory, has prompted even Bush to call it "a problem".

Palestinians see it as a land-grab and a bid to pre-empt the borders of their promised state, but Israel insists the barrier aims only to prevent infiltration by Palestinian militants.

An Arab-backed resolution, passed by the UN General Assembly on December 8, asked the ICJ for a ruling which, although non-binding, could prove embarassing for Israel.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom telephoned US Secretary of State Colin Powell Thursday to once again defend the barrier and said Israel intends to question the ICJ's competence in the case.

Last Sunday, Sharon said he might consider minor changes to the route of as yet unconstructed sections of the barrier, acknowledging that the project caused "damage to Palestinians' quality of life".

Israeli justice officials have already warned that the barrier's route will make it difficult to defend at the hearing in the Hague.

Sharon is also likely to set out his "disengagement plan" during his White House talks, Israeli media reported Thursday.

The hawkish premier warned last December that if the Palestinians failed to meet their obligations under an internationally drafted peace roadmap, he would disengage from the peace process and impose new borders unilaterally by withdrawing from a limited number of Jewish settlements, mostly in the Gaza Strip.

But Sharon is likely to be scolded by his staunchest ally for the lack of progress in implementing the roadmap, a US-backed blueprint which forsees the the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage admitted Thursday that peace efforts were "at a bit of a stalemate," and placed the blame on both Israel and the Palestinians.

He said two US officials, David Satterfield, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and John Wolf, chief of the US team monitoring roadmap compliance, would head to the region at the weekend.

"We continue to be fully engaged," said Armitage, in a sop to Arab fears that Bush had lost interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after he failed to refer to efforts for a settlement in his State of the Union address Tuesday.

Allies of Sharon meanwhile staged a fightback at home against charges of corruption directed at the premier, his son Gilad, and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Both Education Minister Limor Livnat and minister without portfolio Gideon Ezra took aim at acting attorney general Edna Arbel after she said she believed there was enough evidence to indict Sharon for receiving bribes from Israeli businessman David Appel, who was himself indicted Wednesday.

"We need this government, especially as this country is going through difficult times, and I do not understand how the acting attorney general could take such a stance just days away from her leaving office," said Ezra.

Livnat went further. "The manner in which the state attorney's office conducted the current affair leaves a problematic, wrongful and unneeded cloud over the prime minister's head," the education minister said.

The Israeli media predicted that incoming attorney general Menachem Mazuz, who is due to take up his post on Sunday, will only press charges against Sharon on the basis of "ironclad evidence."

It is charged that Appel tried to secure the premier's help in obtaining Greek authorization to build a tourism resort on an Aegean island, by paying bribes to both his son and Olmert, the then mayor of Jerusalem.

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