JERUSALEM (Apr. 5)
On the eve of the festival celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went public with the extent to which he intends to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In a slew of press interviews published Monday, Sharon detailed how Israel would disengage from the Palestinians, a unilateral plan he hopes President Bush will endorse later this month.
Sharon said his initiative — which Palestinians fear will lead to Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank — could deal Palestinian statehood hopes a “a very heavy blow.”
But the prime minister is himself being buffeted — by right-wing cabinet members and the more hawkish members of his own ruling Likud Party who oppose removing settlements.
“There are still details left to work out, but I believe our intention is to leave all of them,” Sharon told Army Radio, referring to the 21 Gaza Strip settlements. Previously he has said that “most” of the heavily fortified enclaves in Gaza would go.
Without committing to a schedule, Sharon said a West Bank pullback would be more limited. “We are talking about four settlements in Samaria,” referring to the northern West Bank, he told Army Radio.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei has welcomed the prospect of a Gaza pullback, but said any parallel move in the West Bank would have to be equally sweeping for the beleaguered U.S.-led “road map” peace plan to have a chance.
But Sharon suggested that more than three years of unbridled Palestinian terrorism had largely dashed the road map proposal of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005.
“The Palestinians understand that this plan is, to a great extent, the end of their dreams, a very heavy blow to them, and it could be they will take steps,” he told Ha’aretz.
On April 14, Sharon is to meet Bush in Washington for a summit expected to seal the future course of the road map. But Sharon has no intention of playing the supplicant, and said Monday that Israel reserves the right to act against U.S. preferences in at least one case — P.A. President Yasser Arafat.
Speaking to Ma’ariv, Sharon said his past pledge to Washington not to harm Arafat physically had been overtaken by events.
“That was when he still went around on red carpets. Today even those people who feted Arafat know exactly what damage he has caused,” Sharon said, repeating a veiled threat against the Palestinian leader’s life. “I would not recommend he consider himself insured.”
The Bush administration, while shunning Arafat as an obstacle to peace, has opposed any Israeli plan to remove him.
“Israel has a right to protect itself, just like the United States,” Sharon told Israel Radio.