JERUSALEM – The Palestinians are assured of a state if they halt attacks on Israelis and dismantle armed groups, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday. But he also tried to ease fears among his right-wing backers that he will dismantle settlements as a concession to peace.
Sharon also told legislators from his right-wing Likud party (search) Monday that he would not agree to preconditions to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who wants guarantees a summit will yield results before agreeing to a date.
The lawmakers were concerned by Israeli media reports Sharon is considering taking unilateral steps toward the Palestinians if attempts to revive the stalled U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan fail. Those steps reportedly include drawing a border, dismantling settlements (search), releasing Palestinian prisoners and withdrawing from West Bank towns.
Sharon — a longtime champion of settlement expansion — confirmed Monday he was considering unilateral steps but avoided talk about dismantling settlements.
"The prime minister said that if he does decide on unilateral steps, he will bring them to the caucus for a vote before taking it to the Cabinet," Likud legislator Yehiel Hazan said.
A legislator present at the meeting quoted Sharon as saying, "If there is one Palestinian government after another, and I'm convinced there is no progress, we will take unilateral steps, not as concessions, but in our interest."
The peace plan envisions Palestinian statehood by 2005 as the centerpiece of a negotiated settlement. However, it remains stalled because both sides have not met even its 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 said Monday that "if there is a cease-fire and the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure, they (the Palestinians) will attain an independent state," the legislator said on condition of anonymity.
Sharon previously has said he considers Palestinian statehood inevitable, but he opposes an Israeli withdrawal from all the West Bank and Gaza.
During the closed-door meeting, hawkish Cabinet Minister Uzi Landau said Israel should dismantle the Palestinian Authority (search) because it was doing nothing to fight terror.
But Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz disagreed, and was quoted as saying that assuming "responsibility for three million Palestinians would be a grave mistake."
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom also said Monday that Sharon and Qureia will meet next week, a claim denied by top Palestinian officials.
Qureia told the Dubai-based Al Arabiya satellite channel Monday he hopes reports of Sharon's willingness to dismantle settlements and ease Palestinian suffering were not "a propaganda stunt."
He said Sharon should take "serious steps" so talks between the two sides could resume. Israel must stop building a barrier separating it from the West Bank, halt settlement expansion, ease Palestinian suffering and lift the travel ban imposed on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he said.
Sharon said Monday he is unwilling to accept preconditions for a summit.
"I won't make any binding commitments in order to meet Abu Ala (Qureia)," the legislator quoted Sharon as saying. "If he wants to meet, we'll meet. If he doesn't, we won't."
The leaks about Sharon's purported contingency plan were viewed as an attempt to deflect growing criticism he is not doing enough to end more than three years of fighting with the Palestinians.
Earlier this month, four former heads of the Shin Bet security service said Israel is headed toward disaster if it does not reach a deal with the Palestinians soon, and they accused Sharon of stalling to avoid concessions.
Palestinian critics and Israeli liberals were skeptical about talk of unilateral steps.
"We've heard many promises, but nothing has come of them," Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres said, adding that even the removal 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."
The Bush administration, which supported Sharon's harsh military measures against the Palestinians, has been increasingly critical of Israeli restrictions against the Palestinian population and the construction of a barrier in the West Bank.
Last week, Elliot Abrams, head of the Middle East desk at the National Security Council, met secretly with Sharon while the prime minister visited Italy, an Israeli official confirmed Monday on condition of anonymity.
Abrams told Sharon he must dismantle illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank and freeze settlement construction, Israeli media reported Monday.