- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his stunned country yesterday that he was determined to reach a peace deal and to end 36 years of “occupation” — a word he used publicly for the first time — of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The word is anathema to the Israeli right, which believes Israel has a legitimate claim to the West Bank and Gaza for religious and security reasons.

“To keep 3.5 million people under occupation is bad for us and them,” Mr. Sharon told angry hard-liners in his Likud Party in remarks broadcast on Israeli radio.

Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and Gaza for a state.

On Sunday, Mr. Sharon’s Cabinet approved conditionally the U.S.-backed “road map.” The three-phase plan begins with a halt to violence and envisages a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2005.

Mr. Sharon’s remarks indicated that his surprising turnaround could be genuine, analysts said.

The ex-general was nicknamed “the Bulldozer” for ramming West Bank settlement programs through successive Cabinets and once argued that giving up even 13 percent of the West Bank and Gaza would endanger Israel’s security.

“This can’t continue endlessly. Do you want to remain forever in Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus?” he asked his party’s lawmakers, listing towns in the West Bank.

The Cabinet’s approval of the road map plan, coupled with a list of conditions, was worded carefully to allow Israel to dodge measures that were toughest for Mr. Sharon’s government to accept. Palestinians, who already accepted the plan, insist that it must be implemented unchanged.

In his remarks yesterday, Mr. Sharon left himself a way out.

“What will happen if Palestinian terror continues? Nothing. Nothing will happen. The Palestinians will get nothing,” he told the lawmakers.

Critics have said Mr. Sharon’s long-held condition that all violence must stop before peace moves forward is unrealistic and guarantees that the stalemate will continue.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom also told Arab neighbors yesterday that it never would accept the return of Palestinian refugees or their descendants to its territory under any peace settlement.

“There will be no way refugees will be settled in the state of Israel,” Mr. Shalom told reporters at a European Union meeting with Mediterranean states in Greece.

He urged Arab states to accept the refugees and their families, estimated at some 4 million, permanently. The road map says the two sides must negotiate over the refugee issue toward the end of the peace process.

Still, Israel’s conditional acceptance of the road map left some Arab leaders cautiously hopeful.

“We are on the verge of peace,” said Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher. “We believe the road map is very clear. Jordan is ready to do its part in a good-faith manner.”

Officials began preparing for a meeting in the coming days between Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, their second in 10 days. Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the meeting would take place tomorrow evening in Mr. Sharon’s office.

That could clear the way for a summit with President Bush as early as next week, possibly in Jordan.

Mr. Sharon faced withering criticism from members of Likud who said the road map favored the Palestinians and endangered Israel.

Yuval Steinitz, a leading Likud member, said Mr. Sharon ignored the negative parts of the plan. “I think that Arik is very uncomfortable with the road map,” said Mr. Steinitz, using a nickname for Ariel. He said Mr. Sharon was unable to withstand international pressure to endorse the plan.

In violence yesterday, a Palestinian teenager was killed by Israeli troops and another surrendered after infiltrating from Gaza, the military said. They were unarmed and apparently looking for work. In a village near the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, an 11-year-old Palestinian boy was killed during an exchange of gunfire with Israeli troops, Israeli radio reported.

Some believe Mr. Sharon’s startling reversal is genuine. “Often he says to me, ‘Ten years ago, I wouldn’t do this or say this,’” political analyst Shimon Shiffer told Israeli TV. “He reached the realization that at the age of 75, he’s the man that finds himself at this intersection, that he and only he can do this.”

Others said Mr. Sharon had never been a true ideologue of the right.

“Sharon is a pragmatist,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv’s Bar Ilan University. “He is capable of change when circumstances require.”

Liberal lawmaker Yossi Sarid argued that Mr. Sharon was trying to keep his intentions murky so that the U.S. government could assume that he was committed to the plan, while his hawkish allies could assume that he was just making a tactical move to end U.S. pressure.

“Ariel Sharon likes to walk in the fog, because then no one knows where he is headed,” Mr. Sarid wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

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