TEL AVIV, Israel – More than 100,000 settlers and their backers protested plans by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), once their greatest champion, to evacuate settlements in a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
But during the demonstration in Tel Aviv (search) on Sunday night, Sharon was 35 miles away in Jerusalem, telling foreign reporters that in a peace deal, Israel would not be able to retain all of its settlements.
Sharon was expected to present his plan for evacuating settlements to parliament later Monday in response to a request from opposition lawmakers.
In his comments to the foreign press, Sharon also said Israel would be "very glad" to restart peace talks with Syria (search), if Syria first stops support for radical Palestinian and Lebanese groups and agrees to start the talks over from scratch.
This followed confirmation from Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom that secret contacts with Syria had taken place several months ago, but they were broken off when news of the talks was leaked in Israel. Syria denied that there were secret contacts.
Israeli leaders have been divided over how to respond to recent signals from Syrian President Bashar Assad that he is ready to resume peace negotiations with Israel. Shalom has said the offers should be explored, while the prime minister has been skeptical about Syria's intentions.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav on Monday issued an invitation to Assad to visit Jerusalem. Syria did not immediately respond.
The pro-settlement demonstration was advanced to Sunday night by organizers who feared bad weather on the original date, a day later.
The demonstrators filled the square in front of the Tel Aviv municipality and surrounding streets to listen to ministers from Sharon's own Cabinet heap criticism on his newfound moderate views. Some threatened to leave the ruling coalition of he carries them out.
Housing Minister Effi Eitam of the pro-settler National Religious Party accused the prime minister of weakness. "In the battlefield there is no disengagement plan, you know that would be running away," he said.
"We won't dismantle settlements and we won't expel Jews," Eitam said to the cheers of the crowd. "We will not be a party to dismantling settlements."
Tel Aviv police chief Yossi Sedbon said police estimates put the crowd at 120,000 people.
The settlers and their supporters believe in their God-given right to live wherever they want within the biblical Land of Israel, which includes the West Bank. However, Palestinians say the settlements are an encroachment on land they claim for a future state.
"All of Zionism is based on the belief that we have a right to this land," Likud lawmaker and parliamentary speaker Reuven Rivlin told AP.
"I came to demonstrate for the land of Israel. I am against the dismantling of settlements, I am against the disengagement plan and I will vote against it in the Knesset (parliament)," Rivlin said.
Protester Micha Cohen, 35, said he had come to the demonstration with his two small children "because for us the struggle is for their future ... we see settlements as important places that should not be evacuated."
Many of the protesters were teenagers and high school children bused in by their schools and youth movements.
"Sharon can't ignore such a big group of people," said settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein. "There is no doubt that it will be much harder to dismantle settlements after this."
At his news conference in Jerusalem, Sharon said that he remains committed to the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which is to lead to a Palestinian state. In that case, Sharon said, "we will not be able to keep all our Jewish communities" in the West Bank and Gaza.
If peace talks remain frozen, he said, he would order unilateral moves that would include moving some settlements and redeploying the military.
On the subject of Syria, Sharon said Israel was prepared for talks, but "Syria should stop the help and support of terrorist organizations."
Sharon said talks should begin "without any preconditions," a reference to the talks that broke down in 2000.
In those talks, under then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel was prepared to give up all of the disputed Golan Heights in exchange for peace. Sharon insists the talks must start over.