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Middle East: Sharon Issues Separation Ultimatum To Palestinians

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has presented the Palestinians with an ultimatum: Make progress in the peace process leading to separate states or see Israel unilaterally impose a separation plan of its own. The ultimatum is drawing fire from many sources -- Washington, the Palestinians, and Israeli settlers -- because it threatens to impose a solution within months to a complex territorial dispute that has lasted decades.

Prague, 19 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sharon's ultimatum that he will impose his own separation between Israel and the Palestinian territories if there is no progress in the peace process is bad news for many of the other parties involved in the dispute.

The Israeli prime minister said yesterday that if the Palestinians do not within months "uproot terrorist groups" and otherwise meet their commitments to the Middle East "road map," he will implement a unilateral "disengagement plan" that provisionally separates the two peoples.

He warned that the disengagement plan would be based on establishing a security line that maximizes security for Israel against attacks from Palestinian militant groups and would cost the Palestinians land they currently want for a permanent state.

"If within several months the Palestinians continue not to fulfill their road map obligations, then Israel will initiate a unilateral security move -- one of separation from the Palestinians," Sharon said. "It is clear that under the [Israeli] separation plan, the Palestinians would get much less than they could have obtained in a direct negotiation around the road map."

He also said that any unilateral security line imposed by Israel would not be the permanent border of the state of Israel but that the Israeli Army would be distributed along its length until the road map is implemented.

The road map, backed by Washington, envisions the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 after both sides have met a series of commitments including an end to attacks on Israel and a halt to Israeli settlement activity.

Sharon's detailed ultimatum immediately drew critical reactions from the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. and even Israeli settlers -- whom Sharon warned could also lose land under his new security arrangements.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said he was disappointed by what he called the Israeli leader's "threats" and said they amounted to a rejection of the road map. He said his side remains committed to negotiating a settlement that establishes a Palestinian state whose borders follow those of the Palestinian territories on the eve of the 1967 Middle East war.

"I am disappointed. I was expecting something new. But I want to reconfirm and reiterate our position. We are committed to the road map. We are committed to the withdrawal to the 4th of June 1967 borders. We are committed to reaching a permanent agreement and to putting an end to the conflict," Qurei said.

Washington said that it opposed any unilateral moves that fall outside the road-map provision for a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan expressed Washington's reaction late yesterday: "We would oppose any unilateral steps that block the road toward negotiations under the road map that lead to this two-state vision. Steps that ease the conditions of Palestinian life, that reduce friction and violence, or that help block terrorist activities are, of course, part of the road map."

But the U.S. spokesman praised Sharon for saying that Israel wants to see progress in implementing the road map and is ready to dismantle some settlements. McClellan said that "unilateral steps can help the road map move forward if they are part of the road map. Israeli actions to remove outposts and settlements are part of the road map."

Israeli settlers themselves, who once regarded Sharon as a champion of their movement to establish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, strongly criticized the Israeli leader following his speech.

Bensi Lieberman, president of the Settlers Council, said that "if we come to the conclusion that the prime minister will take unilateral measures which will involve the transfer of Jews,... [we] will do everything in our power to prevent these measures from becoming reality."

Sharon did not specify in his speech what Palestinian lands or Israeli settler outposts might be affected by a unilateral Israeli separation. He told the Israeli public only that under his disengagement plan "Israel will strengthen its control over those same areas in the Land of Israel which will constitute an inseparable part of the State of Israel in any future agreement. I know you would like to hear names, but we should leave something for later."

A leader of a key Palestinian militant group that frequently claims responsibility for bomb attacks on Israeli civilians dismissed Sharon's ultimatum. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, said it merely restated "old positions."

"In my opinion, there was nothing new in Sharon's speech, it was a repetition of old positions. Sharon did not fulfill his obligations to the road map, he did not remove settlements, he did not stop the settlement, he did not end his racist separation wall, he did not end his aggression against the Palestinian people," Yassin said.

It remains to be seen whether Sharon's ultimatum will spark any new Mideast momentum toward implementing the road map or, failing that, might indeed be unilaterally implemented despite strong international and even some domestic resistance. Sharon signaled that he recognizes some limits on his ability to act unilaterally, saying that anything Israel did would be in cooperation with Washington and that he did not want to harm strategic cooperation.

As Sharon warned time is running out for a negotiated settlement, he also announced that his government will speed up construction of a controversial security wall that already partially separates Israeli and Palestinian areas on the West Bank.

The wall has been criticized by the Palestinians as an effort to establish ahead of time the borders of any future Palestinian state at the cost of current Palestinian holdings.

U.S. President George W. Bush has called the barrier "a problem" that makes it "very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israelis." Washington recently sought to highlight its displeasure with the wall by cutting some $290 million from loan guarantees for Israel in line with its spending on the barrier and settlement activity.