- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

HERZLIYA, Israel — Israel would unilaterally evacuate some Jewish settlements while strengthening its hold on other occupied areas if there is no progress on the “road map” peace plan in the next few months, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday.

In a policy shift that had been clearly signaled for days, Mr. Sharon sketched the contours of a “disengagement plan” that he pledged would be coordinated with the United States.

“If in a few months the Palestinians still continue to disregard their part in implementing the road map, then Israel will initiate the unilateral security step of disengagement from the Palestinians,” he said, speaking at an annual conference on security at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

“We are interested in conducting direct negotiations, but do not intend to hold Israeli society hostage in the hands of the Palestinians,” he said.

Critics and allies of Mr. Sharon said there was little new in the speech, while analysts noted that the plan would be impossible to implement until late next year.

But it was the most explicit expression yet of Mr. Sharon’s readiness to dismantle settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that he once had championed.

The speech, which reiterated several statements made in recent weeks, was aimed at prodding Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to crack down on militants while satisfying an Israeli public growing increasingly impatient for a separation.

The White House credited Mr. Sharon with taking significant steps toward peace but said it would oppose any effort to impose a Mideast settlement.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan urged the Israeli leader and Mr. Qureia to meet face to face “very soon” and without preconditions to discuss how to progress on the U.S.-endorsed road map for peace.

Mr. Sharon again warned that his disengagement plan would leave the Palestinians with “much less” than they would get through direct negotiations.

Though stopping well short of saying that Israel would annex areas of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, he said Israel would consolidate control over areas considered “inseparable” from Israel proper.

Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib had a measured response to the speech, saying Mr. Sharon’s plan was short on details and echoed previous comments.

“He could have been more constructive,” Mr. Khatib said. “In our thinking, the unilateral approach is not useful, especially since we have a plan called the road map.”

Under the plan, Israel would withdraw its army from portions of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to “new security lines” and leave Jewish settlements surrounded by Palestinian population centers. The settlements slated to be evacuated would not be part of Israel in a future agreement with Palestinians, Mr. Sharon said.

“I know you would like to hear names, but we should leave something for later,” he said.

Mr. Sharon’s refusal to detail the time frame and the locations of the withdrawal dashed speculation about a dramatic move in the near future. But it allowed him to avert a major rupture in his coalition.

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