Sharon threatens Arafat in interview
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatened Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a newspaper interview published Friday, declaring, "Arafat has no insurance policy," as U.S. peace envoys met separately with Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart to discuss Israel's "unilateral disengagement" plan.
Sharon also said his plan includes a pullout from all of Gaza, the first time he has spelled out the extent of the withdrawal.
Sharon gave a series of interviews to mark the Jewish holiday of Passover next week. Israel TV reported Thursday that Sharon said it was possible that Israel would act against Arafat in the future. Other media quoted Sharon as saying, "Arafat cannot be so sure of himself in his place."
The daily Maariv printed excerpts of its interview on Friday, in which Sharon said Arafat "has no insurance policy." Sharon was also quoted as saying, "Today everyone knows that Arafat is the obstacle (blocking) any progress."
Arafat has been confined to his West Bank headquarters in the city of Ramallah for more than two years by Israeli troops and threats.
Last September, Israel's Cabinet declared that Arafat is responsible for Palestinian violence and should be "removed," and several Cabinet ministers have called frequently for his expulsion or killing.
In an interview with the Haaretz newspaper, Sharon said that once Israel completes the barrier it is building along and in the West Bank, Palestinians living illegally in Israel will be expelled. He said there are tens of thousands of them in Israeli Arab villages.
Sharon also said his plan includes a withdrawal from all of the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, the paper said. "We need to get out of Gaza, not to be responsible any more for what happens there," he said.
"I hope that by next Passover we will be in the midst of disengagement, because disengagement is good for Israel," he told Maariv. Sharon is on a campaign to persuade rebellious members of his own Likud Party to support the pullout plan. Earlier this week, he agreed to a party referendum and said he would abide by the results.
Maariv said that after the Gaza pullout, Israel would continue to control the Gaza-Egypt border, scene of repeated clashes as Israeli troops try to destroy tunnels Israel says the Palestinians use to smuggle weapons in from Egypt.
Early Friday, Israeli tanks entered the Rafah refugee camp on the border, looking for tunnels, the military said. Palestinians said there were heavy exchanges of fire but no reports of casualties.
On Thursday, American diplomats assured skeptical Palestinian officials that Israel's plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip brings an opportunity to revive the international "road map" peace initiative, but they said future progress would depend on a Palestinian crackdown on violent groups.
The U.S. envoys delivered the message in a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in the West Bank town of Jericho. The team then had two hours of talks with Sharon, but no details were disclosed.
The American team is in the region to discuss Sharon's plan. The Israeli leader is to present it to President George W. Bush in Washington on April 14.
The Palestinians want assurances that the plan will be the first step toward a larger withdrawal from the West Bank, while Israel is seeking American support for limits on future Palestinian demands.
After Thursday's meeting, Qureia said he would welcome an Israeli pullback from Gaza, but only if it is part of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
The road map aims to bring about an independent Palestinian state by next year, but has been stalled for months amid violations by Israel and the Palestinians. Sharon has said he would carry out unilateral steps if talks on the "road map" remain frozen, to reduce Israeli-Palestinian friction.
Qureia said he sought assurances that the Gaza plan would not prejudice future talks on a permanent settlement, including the status of the West Bank and Jerusalem and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees who claim property in what is now Israel.
"Unilateralism is not the solution," Qureia said. "The only thing that will help and bring forth Palestinian commitments is to negotiate with the Palestinians."
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the Americans believe Sharon's plan is an opportunity to revive the road map. "They see it as part of the road map, and not as a substitute to the road map," he said.
However, he said, the U.S. diplomats made it clear they expect the Palestinians to honor their road map obligations ¡ª particularly the requirement to dismantle violent groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis over the past three years.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli welcomed Qureia's statement against Palestinian suicide bombings. "It's important to publicly renounce terrorism," Ereli said, but added that the Palestinians must take action to stop it.
The American diplomats ¡ª White House officials Steve Hadley and Elliot Abrams, and State Department Mideast envoy William Burns ¡ª did not comment after the meeting. Bush launched the "road map" last June, but there has been no progress in implementing it. Israel has not carried out its obligation to remove dozens of unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank and halt construction in veteran settlements, and the Palestinians have not moved against the militants.