- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon floated the idea of unilateral steps to end the conflict with the Palestinians yesterday, with officials telling the Israeli news media that this might include drawing a border and removing some settlements.

In a Cabinet meeting, Mr. Sharon said he remains committed to the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. But he said he does not rule out unilateral steps, presumably if efforts to revive the road map fail.

The comments seemed largely aimed at proving to an increasingly restless public that he has a plan for ending three years of bloodshed.

Trying to soften his hard-line image, Mr. Sharon told Yediot Ahronot daily he would present his new plan soon.

“I just wanted the Israeli public to know that its prime minister has not stopped thinking about how to get out of the impasse with the Palestinians,” he told the newspaper.

Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres was skeptical, saying the removal of even small settlements would break up Mr. Sharon’s center-right coalition.

“I don’t think Sharon is in a hurry to take apart his government,” Mr. Peres said.

Under the plan reported yesterday, Israel would draw its own border if peace efforts bog down, following the route of the West Bank barrier currently under construction.

Mr. Sharon reportedly told the ministers he would consider rerouting upcoming segments, which currently would cut deep into the West Bank, and bring them closer to Israel.

Israel also would uproot smaller settlements, and residents would be moved to the Negev Desert or to larger settlements in the West Bank, according to the reported plan. Israel would withdraw from Palestinian towns and release some of its thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

The reports sparked conflicting reactions from Cabinet ministers. Effi Eitam of the National Union dismissed the reported plans as “complete folly,” while Yosef Paritski of the centrist Shinui party said his group would “demand concrete steps to jump-start and advance the diplomatic process.”

Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia plan to meet, but no date has been set.

The Palestinians long have argued that they cannot dismantle armed groups as required by the plan for fear of setting off civil war. Palestinian officials say the United States ceded the point by drastically reducing demands in an action plan for the Palestinian security forces, which was sent to Mr. Qureia last week.

According to the document, the officials said, the United States would expect Palestinian security forces to close weapons-smuggling tunnels, stop the manufacturing of homemade rockets and mortars, arrest those who fire them, set up security checkpoints and detain those who appear in public with illegal weapons. It falls short of a crackdown.

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