- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister moved away from some of his own peace ideas in remarks published yesterday, a day after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell concluded a Middle East mission.

Ariel Sharon staked out tough positions on Jewish settlements, suggesting he would try to hold on to much of the West Bank’s heartland in the peace process that aims to create a Palestinian state within three years.

That appeared to conflict with his earlier statements about relinquishing control of parts of the West Bank, including settlements, accepting a Palestinian state that would control contiguous territory instead of isolated islands in the West Bank.

In other developments yesterday, police arrested the leader and 14 members of Islamic Movement, the largest Arab political group in Israel, on suspicion they funneled millions of dollars to the Hamas militant group, which has carried out scores of suicide attacks against Israelis.

The arrests marked a further downturn in relations between the Israeli authorities and the 1.2 million-strong Arab minority. Tensions have been running high since police killed 13 Israeli-Arab protesters in antigovernment riots in October 2000.

Mr. Sharon spoke after Mr. Powell failed to win Israel’s acceptance of the U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan and days before the Israeli leader was to meet Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas in the first summit in nearly three years.

Mr. Sharon told the Jerusalem Post newspaper in an interview that Israel would hold on to some settlements in the heart of the West Bank, citing three by name — Beit El, Ariel and Emmanuel.

Israeli control over those areas would make it difficult to establish a territorially contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank, a goal of the “road map” for Middle East peace.

Mr. Sharon will discuss his objections to the plan with President Bush at the White House next week.

Mr. Powell said during his weekend visit that settlements would be an issue in the Sharon-Bush talks. The road map demands that Israel dismantle dozens of smaller West Bank outposts and freeze all construction in the 150 veteran settlements in the first stage of the plan.

Mr. Sharon appeared to be reversing a more compromising stand. In an interview with the Ha’aretz newspaper last month, he suggested that Israel was ready to part with West Bank areas of biblical significance, citing Beit El and Shiloh.

In the Post interview, he said two large settlements in the heart of the West Bank — Ariel and Emmanuel — would be on the Israeli side of a barrier being built to keep out Palestinian militants. This would mean that significant parts of the West Bank would be west of the barrier — on the side that would be connected to Israel proper.

The Israeli leader has suggested in the past, though never formally, that the Palestinians could have about half of the West Bank, composed of disconnected islands of land, as an interim solution.

The Palestinians have rejected the idea, saying they are entitled to all the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Palestinians have accepted the road map, a three-stage blueprint that begins with an end to violence, Israeli army pullbacks and a halt in settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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