Sharon to Lay Out West Bank Plan Thursday

Palestinian officials called on Israel to stick to an internationally backed peace plan ahead of a much-anticipated speech by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to explain his ideas about unilateral Israeli moves in the West Bank if peace talks fail.

Violence continued early Thursday when Israeli troops conducting searches killed four armed Palestinians in clashes in the West Bank city of Nablus (search), a military spokeswoman said. Palestinian security sources said one of the dead was an unarmed baker.

The military said one man ran toward troops with an explosive and was shot as he approached, while in a separate incident, three masked men with automatic weapons shot at soldiers from a rooftop and were killed by return fire.

Sharon began talking of undefined "unilateral steps" last month, indicating that he might consider moving West Bank Jewish settlements (search) while seizing control of swaths of the West Bank.

He has said such moves would not be as generous as a negotiated settlement, but indicated that they would involve painful concessions to ensure Israel's security.

Channel 10 TV reported Sharon would send his speech to Washington before delivery Thursday at a security conference in Herzliya. A spokesman for Sharon refused to comment.

Palestinians and the United States have harshly criticized Sharon's go-it-alone concept, linking it to the security barrier Israel is building. It would slice deep into the West Bank in several places to protect settlements.

Sharon has said the separation barrier is meant only to keep Palestinian bombers and other attackers away. But Palestinians, who claim all of the West Bank, call the barrier project a scheme to seize land.

Israel conquered the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip (search) in the 1967 Middle East war and has held them since.

The Palestinians seek a state in those areas, and the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan envisions such a state by 2005, reached through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a peace agreement.

In the interim, Israel is required to freeze settlement activity and the Palestinians are to dismantle militant groups — steps neither side has taken.

Israel has some 150 settlements in the West Bank with about 220,000 Jewish settlers. Roughly 3.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian and U.S. officials have called on Israel to stick to the road map, presented formally in June.

Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians will be watching "very closely" Thursday night.

"We are hoping the Israeli government will prepare its people for what it takes to make peace, a meaningful peace process to end the Israeli occupation," he said.

"If they want to use unilateral steps, like building walls and settlements ... they may do it alone. But they will not have a partner on this side."

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has been trying to arrange a meeting with Sharon to restart talks on the road map since taking office in October. But the two sides have not agreed on an agenda.

Qureia has also been trying to secure a commitment from militant groups to halt attacks on Israel, a key first step toward resuming peace talks.

Egyptian mediators involved in the cease-fire efforts ended a round of meetings with militant groups in Gaza on Wednesday without any progress, although militants agreed to continue the dialogue. Talks in Cairo earlier this month also ended without an agreement.

Egypt announced Wednesday that it would be sending its foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, on a rare visit to Israel next week to help restart peace talks. "There is a wish to overcome this difficult situation," Maher told reporters in Cairo.

Sharon has said Israel is committed to the road map plan, and only would take one-sided action if peace efforts fail.

Sharon faces international and domestic pressure to end three years of fighting with the Palestinians.

Many Israelis also fear that Israel will lose its Jewish majority if it continues to control the 3.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel itself has 5.2 million Jews and 1.3 million Arab citizens.

Within Sharon's hawkish Likud Party, however, other senior officials said a unilateral pullback would invite more violence.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom called such proposals a "reward for terrorism."

"They reduce the prospects for future negotiations for a solution, they don't take us anywhere and they create no sense of obligation among the Palestinians," he told the Herzliya conference.

Meanwhile, settlers at the outpost of Migron, north of Jerusalem, welded trailers together and blocked roads on Wednesday ahead of an anticipated army move to evacuate the outpost, where 43 families live.

Settler rabbis issued a religious ruling banning the government from evacuating settlements or handing over West Bank land. The ruling is not legally binding but would be respected by many Orthodox Jews.