- The Washington Times - Monday, December 26, 2005

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s new centrist party yesterday declared Palestinian statehood as a central goal, and Israel signaled it would drop a threat to ban Jerusalem’s Palestinians from voting in their parliamentary elections.

The signs of a moderate line for present and future political moves were tempered, however, by an announcement of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

The latest building, details of which were disclosed in newspaper ads published yesterday seeking bids from contractors, would violate Israel’s commitments under the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

The plans include 228 homes in the settlements of Beitar Illit and Efrat — both near Jerusalem.

Sharon aide Raanan Gissin said plans for the latest construction began more than five years ago. He said the construction would be in settlements that Israel plans to retain after a final peace settlement with the Palestinians.

The road map calls for a freeze on all settlement construction in the West Bank, which the Palestinians claim as part of a future state. Since accepting the peace plan in June 2003, Israel has continued to expand settlements. The Palestinians also have not carried out their initial road map obligation to disarm militant groups.

The settlement plans came as Mr. Sharon’s new political party, Kadima, signaled readiness to hand over more West Bank territory to the Palestinians and work toward an independent Palestinian state after Israel’s March 28 elections. Opinion polls forecast a strong victory by Mr. Sharon’s bloc.

Mr. Sharon left the hard-line Likud Party last month to form Kadima, saying he would have more freedom to negotiate a peace deal.

A draft of Kadima’s election platform published yesterday called for conceding more land to the Palestinians as part of peace talks culminating in a Palestinian state.

“The basic tenet of the peace process is two national states,” the platform says. Party spokesman Lior Chorev said the draft, detailed in the daily newspaper Ma’ariv, was to be approved by next week.

The platform also says Israel’s existence “requires giving up part of the Land of Israel.”

Also yesterday, Israeli officials said the government may drop its opposition to allowing Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to vote in Palestinian elections next month.

Israel threatened last week to bar voting in East Jerusalem because the Islamic group Hamas is participating, a warning that infuriated the Palestinians and led to threats to cancel the elections and blame Israel.

Separately, in Ramallah, a Palestinian court cleared the way yesterday for the ruling Fatah party to submit a single list of candidates for the parliamentary elections, though registration officially closed Dec. 14. A poll published yesterday showed Hamas would finish first, ahead of the two Fatah lists — the old guard and young leadership.

The two squabbling factions already had decided to reunite. The decision yesterday cleared the way for them to enter a combined list.

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