Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Tens of thousands of Jews will be moved out of their homes and behind an Israeli security fence next year if the U.S.-backed “road map” to peace fails, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday.

The process, Mr. Olmert said, will be “very painful and difficult and heartbreaking,” but will be done to protect Jews both from terrorist attacks and from becoming outnumbered by Palestinian Arabs in their own state.

If Palestinians do not meet their obligations to fight terror and engage in “meaningful serious dialogue” he said, “we will have to take unilateral steps to separate ourselves from the Palestinians.”

“Consequently, we will have to move out of territories that were administered by Israel for many years,” Mr. Olmert said in a conference call with reporters from Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is to make a major policy address to the nation today regarding the stalled peace process.

Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, said Mr. Sharon would likely reaffirm Israel’s commitment to the road map and its desire for a prompt meeting, without any preconditions, between Mr. Sharon and the Palestinian prime minister.

“We should expect a firm commitment to the vision of President Bush,” Mr. Ayalon said.

“In the absence of any movement, we will consult again with our friends and allies, the Americans, to search together for new ways” to move the process forward, he said in a telephone interview.

Israeli press and experts said Mr. Sharon also will announce Israel’s decision to unilaterally pull out of the Gaza Strip and certain West Bank settlements if the U.S.-backed peace plan crumbled.

Driven by the fear that sticking to the dream of some Zionists of having a single state reaching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River would eventually make Jews a minority within their own state, Mr. Olmert has repeatedly called for redrawing the lines between Israelis and Palestinians.

In order to maximize the number of Jews and minimize the number of Palestinians, Mr. Olmert said, “settlements will have to be removed into new locations within boundaries that will be set by this new line.”

Mr. Olmert declined to detail where that line would run beyond saying that its parameters would be to maximize the number of Jews and minimize the number of Arabs of “what will then be the border line between us and them.”

He did say it would be impossible to divide Jerusalem, a city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

Israeli diplomats insist the combination wire-concrete barrier is being erected only to ensure the safety of Israelis from Palestinian bomb attacks, and is not a political border.

“I don’t see us unilaterally deciding a border,” said Mr. Ayalon. “We may decide for security reasons to change our deployment here and there, but it should not have any political connotations.”

Mr. Ayalon also said that any talk on evacuating settlements in the occupied territory was premature.

“All our energies should be devoted to making sure we ensure the vision of President Bush succeeds and the road map succeeds,” he said.

Designed by Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, the road map demands that Palestinians stop all terror attacks and dismantle terror organizations, and that Israelis dismantle all unauthorized outposts.

“I would expect to see action very soon — next week or so,” Mr. Ayalon said of the outposts.

But Mr. Olmert said that if the road map did not work out “within short months” Israel would have to take action, after consulting with the Bush administration.

“I think the prime minister is committed first to carry out the effort to negotiate on the basis of he road map, [but] I think he feels strongly that if this doesn’t work, something will have to be done. Whether or not he agrees that we will do it in one major step or gradually — that remains to be seen,” he said.

“The basic understanding that we don’t want it to get stuck forever I think is evident.”

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