- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

In excerpts of an interview with the Jerusalem Post published yesterday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon staked out what appeared to be a new, tougher stance on maintaining Israeli settlements in the West Bank if a peace agreement can be reached with Palestinians. “If you ask me whether in Beit El there will not be Jews,” said Mr. Sharon, “no, Jews will live there.”

Mr. Sharon was also asked if Jews would continue to live in Beit El and Shilo — currently locations with small settlements — in the event of a peace agreement. The prime minister replied: “Do you see a possibility of Jews living under Arab sovereignty, I’m asking you, do you see that possibility?”

Mr. Sharon sounded very different from the man who told the newspaper Haaretz last month that “Look, we are talking about the cradle of the Jewish people. Our whole history is bound up with these places. Bethlehem, Shiloh, Beit El. And I know we will have to part with some of these places.”

So, is Mr. Sharon — who will arrive in the United States next week for talks on the peace process with President Bush — backing away from his previously stated willingness to reach a compromise with Palestinians that would include giving up some of those settlements? Might he be embracing a harder line as a negotiating tactic? Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Mr. Sharon, said yesterday that, in the interview with the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli leader was simply making the point that there won’t be a place on the map where politicians draw a neat kind of a line, with one side for Arabs only and the other side for Jews only. Once a real peace settlement is reached with Palestinians, Mr. Shoval predicted, legal arrangements will be reached to enable Jews to live inside an independent Palestinian state, just as Arabs live freely in Israel today.

Regarding settlements, there is actually a measurable degree of agreement between the Sharon government and the Bush administration. Israel has repeatedly said that it will remove illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank, and Israel is abiding by a settlement freeze — no new settlements being built, no expropriation of land for that purpose and no expansion of settlement boundaries.

Whatever his intention, Mr. Sharon’s reported comments (the entire Post interview is scheduled for publication tomorrow) suggest that Israel has no intention of negotiating over the future of settlements. Worse still, Mr. Sharon’s seeming reversal of his position could be used as a pretext by Palestinians to drag their feet on critical matters like ending terrorism. If Mr. Sharon doesn’t clarify his position on settlements before he arrives in this country, President Bush should insist that he publicly do so when he gets here.

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