Sharon Floats Settlement Plan

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose popularity has slipped over his failure to end the conflict with the Palestinians, floated the idea of unilateral steps Sunday, with officials telling Israeli media this may include drawing a border and removing some settlements.

In the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon said he remains committed to the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which envisions a negotiated deal, with a Palestinian state as a centerpiece, by 2005. But Sharon added that he does not rule out unilateral steps, presumably if efforts to revive the road map fail.

The prime minister did not elaborate, and the comments seemed largely aimed at proving to an increasingly restless Israeli public that he has a plan for ending three years of bloodshed. Sharon's critics include four former security chiefs who recently warned Israel is headed for disaster without a quick solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, and accused him of stalling to avoid concessions.

Trying to soften his hardline image, 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.

Palestinian officials and Israeli liberals were skeptical. "We've heard many promises, but nothing has come of them," said Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres, adding that the removal even of small settlements would break up Sharon's center-right coalition. "I don't think Sharon is in a hurry to take apart his government," Peres said.

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."

Under the plan reported Sunday, Israel would draw its own border if peace efforts bog down, and the frontier would run along the West Bank barrier currently under construction. Sharon reportedly told the ministers Sunday he would consider rerouting upcoming segments, which as currently planned would cut deep into the West Bank in some areas, and bring them closer to Israel.

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

The leaks were published at a time of renewed effort to revive the road map, stalled almost since its introduction in June. Both sides have failed to meet even the most basic requirements — a settlement freeze and the removal of dozens of illegal West Bank outposts by Israel, and the dismantling of militant groups by the Palestinians.

Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia plan to meet, but no date has been set. In preparation for the summit, Palestinian officials are putting together a document that would list the obligations of both sides and would be approved by the two leaders. Most of the obligations are set out in the road map.

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

Qureia hopes that by the time he meets Sharon, he will have a pledge in hand from Palestinian militants to halt attacks on Israelis. Internal truce talks begin next week in Cairo, and Qureia is expected to join the conference toward the end, for a possible declaration. The truce would be linked to an Israeli promise to halt military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel has so far refused to give such guarantees. However, Israeli officials have hinted they might not insist on a full crackdown in the first phase of a truce.

The head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, told the Cabinet that the Islamic militant group Hamas wants a truce only to rebuild its terror infrastructure, particularly in the West Bank. Dichter, who opposes easing travel bans on the Palestinians, said militants are still trying to carry out attacks. He said Israel recently foiled 14 suicide attacks in various stages of planning and that there are currently 50 intelligence warnings of possible attacks.

In another development, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has asked Palestinian leaders to show support for a transitional Iraqi government to be installed by June.

Palestinian backing could boost the legitimacy of such a government in the eyes of the Arab world, at a time when U.S. policy in Iraq is under sharp attack. Palestinian-Iraqi ties have traditionally been close, and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had styled himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause.

The request, which Shaath said was made in a letter from Powell to him, would mark the first time Americans have attempted to include the Palestinians in broader regional diplomacy. It could also signal a warming of U.S.-Palestinian ties after a frosty period of disagreements over the role of Yasser Arafat and the approach toward militants.

"This is progress in American-Palestinian relations, because usually they (the Americans) discuss with us issues that are related to the Palestinian-Israeli track," Shaath said. "Now they are discussing with us issues on the regional level, and this is very interesting."

Chuck Hunter, a spokesman for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, said he could not confirm that the letter was sent. William Burns, a U.S. envoy to the Mideast, is due to arrive in the region at the end of the month to discuss the situation in Iraq, said a Palestinian official.