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"Sharon Says Israel Must Cede Some Land for Peace" By Jeffrey Heller
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday Israel would have to give up some occupied land for peace with Palestinians but vowed to speed up work on a disputed West Bank barrier it deems vital to its security.
He also raised the possibility, in a question and answer session with Israeli editors, that he would take unspecified "unilateral steps" should talks with the Palestinians on advancing a U.S.-backed peace "road map" fail.
Sharon's comments hardened hints floated in local media that he was prepared in the event of continued stalemate in the peace process to remove some isolated Jewish settlements and draw the boundaries of a Palestinian state along the route of the barrier, which cuts deep into the West Bank.
"It is clear that in the end we will not be in all the places where we are now," the right-wing premier said. "(But) we are accelerating the fence and we won't stop it because it is essential to the security of the state."
Washington said Tuesday it was penalizing Israel for the barrier and settlement expansion by deducting nearly $290 million from a multi-billion-dollar package of loan guarantees.
Sharon faces growing calls at home as well as abroad for bold action to end three years of violence and bolster the status of Palestinian moderates against militants by reining in settlers and lifting blockades imposed on Palestinian cities.
But opposition doves who have drafted an alternative, more far-reaching peace plan have dismissed Sharon's signs of flexibility as insincere, accusing him of a gambit to draw international attention away from their initiative.
Palestinians say the barrier, a swathe of concrete walls, electric fences and razor wire, is a bid to annex terrain.
"There is no viable Palestinian state if Israel continues to build the wall," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said in the West Bank city of Ramallah after Sharon's remarks.
President Bush last week called on Israel to stop the construction to avoid prejudicing future negotiations.
'NO COMMITMENTS' ABOUT ANY PLACE IN TERRITORIES
Applying pressure on Qurie, Sharon said Israel would not give the Palestinians "unlimited time" to make peace.
"It is possible I'll be convinced there is no use waiting for one Palestinian government or another (to negotiate) and (I will) take unilateral steps," he said, declining to elaborate on moves he might make.
Qurie told reporters his bureau chief would meet Sharon's office director soon to prepare for a prime ministerial meeting.
Washington has been prodding Israel to do more to implement the "road map" since Qurie took office this month and began negotiating with militants to steer them into a formal cease-fire to capitalize on almost two months without major violence.
But Sharon's suggestions that some isolated settlements might be scrapped has met resistance from right-wing allies.
"I don't intend to make any commitments to anyone about any place," Sharon, a champion of settlement-building, said in response to a question about the future of Netzarim, an isolated settlement near Gaza City.
Lashing out at the symbolic Geneva Accords peace deal, Sharon said the initiative by his left-wing opponents "does Israel damage and is a mistake."
The "Geneva Accords," due for a gala launch in the Swiss city Monday, envisage a Palestinian state like the road map. But the agreement goes further by mandating removal of most settlements and splitting Jerusalem into two capitals.
In London, senior Israeli and Palestinian officials -- including Sharon's son Omri and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's security adviser Jibril Rajoub -- were to discuss peace issues at an informal seminar. "The aim is to create trust and a better atmosphere between the Israelis and Palestinians," Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir, one of the participants, said from London.
Rajoub told Israel Radio: "(Sharon) must decide if he truly wants security or to continue occupying Palestinian lands."
In advance of Sharon's "unilateral steps," his Attorney General is ridding the Israeli press of any possible opposition. To quote Bernard Shapiro, this is
"more than an attempt by the Left to silence the major Zionist/religious media in Israel. The first step by all governments in history, when planning major unpopular actions, is to seize and silence any opposition media. . . To see it happen in Israel breaks my heart. It portends grievous actions in the future."