Israel's Sharon aims to scrap peace plan - report

By Dan Williams
02 Jan 2006 11:19:05 GMT

JERUSALEM, Jan 2 (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans eventually to scrap a U.S.-led "road map" to peace with the Palestinians and instead seek Washington's blessing for annexing occupied West Bank land, a newspaper said on Monday.

The report by senior staff of Maariv newspaper gave no source, but Sharon's initial plans for last year's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip were first floated in a similar way.

Sharon's spokesman declined comment, while a senior Israeli political source dismissed the report as "pure speculation".

A senior Palestinian official said he doubted whether the United States or the European Union would endorse the plan described by Maariv.

The paper said Sharon, who is up for re-election in March, would argue that Israel was justified in abandoning the peace plan and setting borders unilaterally because of the failure of the Palestinians to crack down on militant groups.

In public, Sharon remains very much committed to the road map for a Palestinian state on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war alongside a secure Israel. But Palestinians have long said they suspect Sharon intends to dictate terms.

The Palestinians have failed to fulfil their obligation under the plan to start disarming factions spearheading a 5-year-old revolt. Israel has not met its own promise to stop expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The Maariv report said Sharon would go public with his new plan after Palestinian parliamentary elections this month, when Israeli intelligence has predicted a new outbreak of violence.

Maariv said Israeli officials had already presented the idea to counterparts in President George W. Bush's administration.

"(They) explained to the Americans that since there is no real chance of any achievement in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the natural partner for this matter is Washington, the Middle East's superpower-broker," Maariv said.

Bush supported Sharon's Gaza pullout as a potential spur for peace but has angered Palestinians by announcing that Israel could expect to keep some West Bank land under any final accord.

The U.S. embassy spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat voiced doubts about future backing for such a plan. "Maybe this is the wishful thinking of certain people in the Israeli government, but I do not think the United States or European Union would ever be a part of such schemes," he said.

Maariv said that even before the March 28 general election, Sharon would propose evacuating dozens of West Bank settlements, allowing for the creation of a temporary Palestinian state on a single stretch of land in that territory and in Gaza.

In exchange, Maariv said, Israel wants Bush to endorse its annexation of other West Bank areas as well as parts of Arab East Jerusalem. Israel also wants U.S. backing for its demand that Palestinian war refugees be allowed to settle in the eventual Palestinian state but never in the Jewish state.
Opinion polls show that Sharon, who has vowed to try to end conflict with the Palestinians if elected for a third term, is the clear favourite.

Prospects for a negotiated settlement may be complicated by gains predicted for Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to the Jewish state's destruction, when it runs for the Palestinian parliament on Jan. 25.
A Sharon confidant dismissed the Maariv report.

"This is pure speculation. We and the Palestinians have hardly started implementing the road map, so it's way too early to declare it dead," the confidant said.