- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, hoping to lure the rival Labor Party into a new unity government, has offered to remove settlements and accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel, according to accounts reported in the press here.
Labor leaders said they were "astonished" by the offer, proposed during talks on a coalition talks this week.
Although the hard-line Israeli leader has signaled his willingness to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, the creation of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory seized by Israeli in the 1967 war has been a cardinal element in his political career.
In contrast, the end of the settlement program has been one of the basic Labor Party positions.
Mr. Sharon met on Monday with Labor leader Amram Mitzna, who campaigned in the recent election on the need to trade land for peace.
The government, meanwhile, continued a military crackdown in the Gaza Strip, killing 11 Palestinians and wounding 27 during overnight raids with tanks and helicopter gunships, Reuters news agency reported.
It said Israeli troops also thrust into the West Bank city of Nablus, killing two Palestinians, and that a car exploded in the city of Jenin, killing a militant affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.
In Washington, the State Department said it was "very concerned" about civilian casualties during the recent fighting, "especially among Palestinian children and young people."
"These casualties continue to result from Israeli military actions in the West Bank and Gaza," spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Mr. Mitzna, who had refused to consider joining another coalition government with Mr. Sharon, appeared to be softening his resistance after his meeting with the prime minister.
He told reporters that the two sides had made "some progress" and would meet again tomorrow. As recently as last week, Mr. Mitzna said the two were so far apart on the issues that such a meeting would be pointless.
The newspaper Ma'ariv reported yesterday that Mr. Sharon told the Labor leader he intended to achieve a "real peace" with the Palestinians.
He reportedly said he was prepared to remove settlements as part of a final agreement and that he fully embraced the peace outline envisioning a Palestinian state advocated by President Bush.
The report said he also accepted, at least in part, Mr. Mitzna's demand that significant budget allocations be shifted immediately from settlements to economically deprived areas within Israel.
Mr. Mitzna made his refusal to join a coalition led by Mr. Sharon the main plank of his campaign for Jan. 28 elections, and he frequently reiterated that determination since Mr. Sharon's overwhelming victory.
Polls showed that position which clashed with an overwhelming public desire for a national unity government largely accounted for Labor's abysmal showing in the elections. The party won only half as many Knesset seats as Mr. Sharon's Likud.
Mr. Sharon has refused until now to say he would dismantle settlements, speaking only of readiness to make "painful concessions."
In his meeting with Mr. Mitzna, he reportedly reiterated his intention not to negotiate with Mr. Arafat, whom he described as a terrorist leader. He has, however, met with other Palestinian leaders since his re-election.
This article is based in part on wire service reports

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