JERUSALEM – Israel will coordinate any unilateral moves in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the United States, the Israeli foreign minister said Tuesday, after meeting with Bush administration officials who oppose any actions that will make it harder to create a Palestinian state.
However, Israel's vice premier, Ehud Olmert (search), pressed hard for just such unilateral steps in a speech Tuesday at a strategy conference in the city of Herzliya.
Olmert, seen by many as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) point man for the case for unilateral action, called for redrawing Israel's borders while removing "tens of thousands of settlers" from isolated West Bank settlements.
It was the first time Olmert had spoken of removing large numbers of settlers from the West Bank.
"The higher the domestic price we shall have to pay in order to implement a unilateral process, the greater will be the international community's acceptance," he said.
Sharon plans to announce in a major policy speech later this week that he will take unilateral steps if there is no progress on the U.S.-led "road map" peace plan within six months, Israeli media reported Tuesday.
Sharon has talked of unilateral moves in recent weeks if peace efforts fail. Those moves would include the completion of a West Bank separation barrier that swallows up large chunks of the land the Palestinians seek for their state, as well as the dismantling of some Jewish settlements, said Israeli reports, citing legislators whom Sharon briefed on his plans in recent days.
Sharon mentioned two Gaza settlements — Netzarim and Morag — as already being marked for evacuation, the Haaretz daily reported. Some 7,000 Israeli settlers live in Gaza, which is home to 1.3 million Palestinians.
Sharon's office denied the prime minister gave legislators names of settlements marked for evacuation.
Last week, President Bush said that "Israel must be mindful ... that they don't make decisions that make it hard to create a Palestinian state."
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met on Monday in Washington with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Israel Radio said the U.S. officials urged Israel to refrain from unilateral moves.
Speaking on Israel Radio, Shalom said he told Bush administration officials that "if the road map cannot be implemented, all will be done in coordination with the United States."
In new violence, Israeli troops shot a 15-year-old boy in the head, critically wounding him, in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank, Palestinian hospital officials said.
Soldiers opened fire after a group of youths threw rocks at them, the sources said, adding that the boy, Noor-Eddine Emran, had been on his way to visit an aunt. Four other youths, including Emran's twin brother, were lightly wounded, they said. The army was investigating.
Also Tuesday, Israel banned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search) from Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem for the third straight year. Palestinian officials had requested that Arafat — who has been confined to the nearby city of Ramallah since late 2001 — be allowed to take part in the festivities in Jesus' traditional birthplace.
Meanwhile, Egyptian mediators arrived in Gaza to restart talks among Palestinian factions about a halt to attacks against Israelis, a crucial first step toward restarting peace negotiations. The delegation was to hold separate talks with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Arafat's Fatah faction.
Militant leaders in Gaza said that despite the failure of an earlier round of talks in Cairo, they were willing to hear out the Egyptians. "The failure of the Palestinian factions to reach an agreement in Cairo is not the end of dialogue," said Nafez Azzam of Islamic Jihad.
The government of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) and the militants disagree not only on the terms of a truce, but also on possible power-sharing.
Qureia, backed by Egyptian mediators, seeks a commitment by the militants to stop all attacks against Israelis. Hamas and Islamic Jihad insisted Israel must meet a series of demands, including ending military operations.
On Monday, Qureia hinted at new progress. "We have been discussing this at every meeting and it is a Palestinian priority, and God willing we will have a new important development in coming days," he said, declining to elaborate.