- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon moved yesterday toward a deal with the opposition Labor Party to keep his government afloat in the event of a unilateral pullout from some settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sharon met with Labor leaders to test their readiness to support him in the Knesset if hard-line coalition partners quit the government. Some Cabinet members have threatened to do just that “the moment he sends in the bulldozers.”

Labor Party leader Shimon Peres said his party will support Mr. Sharon from the opposition benches on any pullout but will not, at this stage, join a unity government.

“We don’t intend to get stuck in a government that will just evacuate a couple of settlements unilaterally,” said another Labor official. “We want serious negotiations with the Palestinians.”

An aide to Mr. Sharon said this was not an appropriate time to invite Labor into the government, “but if Sharon’s political plan remains as it is, then Peres will be a minister by next summer.”

Mr. Sharon has angered the settlement movement by letting it be known in recent days that he is considering a unilateral evacuation of a few settlements even before negotiations with the Palestinians are resumed.

Some settlers distributed leaflets yesterday reading, “Sharon is about to betray us,” and spokesmen vowed that they would resist any attempt to remove settlements.

In a newspaper interview Friday, Mr. Sharon said he intended, in the coming months, to evacuate a few outlying settlements in the Gaza Strip and perhaps the West Bank. This move, he said, was intended primarily to ease the security strain on Israel but also would be welcomed by the Palestinians.

The next stage would be to engage the Palestinian Authority in negotiations under the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, whose first stage calls for the authority to dismantle Hamas and other militant organizations.

Should the negotiations fail, said Mr. Sharon, he would seek a unilateral pullback to interim borders that Israel itself would determine. These would leave the Palestinians with 57 percent of the West Bank — far less territory, Mr. Sharon said, than what they were likely to achieve through negotiations.

The unilateral pullback would leave 86 of Israel’s 144 settlements in place. The Palestinian territory would constitute, in effect, two barely contiguous cantons in the West Bank, with the Gaza Strip constituting a third canton — all of them surrounded by security fences.

“When the Palestinians would want to resume negotiations,” said Mr. Sharon, “they know where to find us.”

Many Israeli officials fear the Palestinians have hardened their negotiating position in the belief that President Bush will press Mr. Sharon to make concessions because he wants an achievement in the Middle East before the 2004 U.S. election.

They note that Mr. Bush publicly chastised Israel during his visit to England, particularly over its construction of a barrier around much of the West Bank, and approved a related cut in loan guarantees to Israel.

The Sharon administration also was frustrated that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met last week with the Israeli and Palestinian architects of the Geneva Accord peace plan, which Mr. Sharon has denounced.

The latest blow came Monday when the U.N. General Assembly asked the International Court of Justice at The Hague to rule on the legality of the barrier, which cuts deeply into Palestinian territory.

These actions are seen as having contributed to a refusal by Hamas and other militant organizations to accept a proposal by Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia for a total cease-fire with Israel during meetings earlier this week in Cairo.

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