JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday he was determined to remove some Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, even if it means forming a new government.
During a visit to the coastal city of Ashkelon (search), Sharon avoided direct mention of his Gaza plans but said he was determined to press ahead with plans to remove some settlements.
"We have to take painful steps. I want to say that not only is this difficult for the settlers but also it is more painful for myself than anyone else in Israel," said Sharon, a patron of the Jewish settlement movement throughout his career.
"It pains me a lot. But I've reached a decision and I am going to carry it out."
On Monday, Sharon told a columnist for the Haaretz daily newspaper that he wants to dismantle 17 Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip (search) and several more in the West Bank. The newspaper quoted Sharon as saying he has "given an order to plan for the evacuation" of the settlements.
He also said that eventually there will be no Israelis left in Gaza.
Those remarks stunned Sharon's hard-line allies, and two ultra-nationalist parties said they would quit the governing coalition if he moved ahead.
Sharon was quoted Tuesday as saying he would try to form a new government in such a case, presumably by bringing in the opposition Labor Party.
Labor leader Shimon Peres (search) said he would support Sharon "as long as he continues on this road," but stopped short of saying his party would join the government.
Sharon told Haaretz that Israel would need one or two years to remove the 17 Gaza settlements and three "problematic" ones in the West Bank.
He said he would seek U.S. approval and possibly financial aid to relocate about 7,500 Gaza residents to Israel. Sharon acknowledged that Israel might have difficulty justifying a request for American aid, but said it would be in Washington's interest to help with the dismantling of settlements.
"They [the Americans] were opposed to the establishment of settlements," Sharon said. "Now they can say `We warned you,' but the Americans rely on us in the region and what will develop here as part of the president's vision."
Sharon was referring to the stalled U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, whose centerpiece is the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel by 2005.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that, as far as he knew, the Israeli government had not informed the Bush administration of any plan to dismantle Gaza settlements. He urged Israel and the Palestinians to move forward on the peace plan.
Sharon's critics dismissed the prime minister's remarks as a public relations ploy, possibly meant to deflect attention from his involvement in a widening corruption probe.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, "If Mr. Sharon intends to pull out of Gaza and settlements in Gaza, no Palestinian will stand in his way. So far, all the talk about evacuating settlements from this Israeli government was linked to Sharon going to Washington."
Many Israelis were also skeptical. Throughout his political career, Sharon has been the most powerful patron of the Jewish settlement movement.
Peace Now (search), an Israeli movement that advocates evacuating settlements, was derisive. "Sharon has shown great talent for political statements but not for action," the group said. "Peace Now advises the settlers not to hurry to pack."
Some believed that Sharon was serious about his intentions, though his motivation might be tactical rather than strategic.
Sharon faces interrogation Thursday after a close associate was indicted on charges of bribing the prime minister to advance a business deal. If Sharon is indicted, he would have to step down, at least temporarily.
Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said that three settlements at the northern tip of Gaza, close to Israel, would not be removed, because "there is not the element friction" there. Gissin said removing 17 settlements was one of three options, but none of them called for uprooting all of them.
Though most lists count 17 settlements in Gaza, Gissin said there were 21. Dror Etkes, who monitors settlements for Peace Now, said there are 20 official settlements in Gaza and "one or two" unofficial sites.
Sharon has said repeatedly in recent weeks that he plans to take unilateral steps in the West Bank and Gaza — such as dismantling some settlements, redeploying troops and imposing a boundary — if there is no progress on the peace plan.
However, the Gaza plan was the most detailed indication yet of Sharon's idea for unilateral action if peace talks with the Palestinians remain frozen.
Sharon's closest ally, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, said Tuesday the prime minister was serious and implementation could begin by the summer.
"Sharon is not willing to continue with the status quo forever, when this status quo exacts a heavy price from us, a price we are unwilling to pay," Olmert told Israel Radio.
A Sharon aide, meanwhile, confirmed that as part of a final peace deal with the Palestinians, the prime minister has suggested a willingness to trade some Israeli-Arab population and land to the Palestinians in return for the land upon which Jewish settlers live in the West Bank.
However, any such move would have to be accepted by Israeli Arabs, the official said on condition of anonymity.
The idea threatened to arouse the deepest fears of Israel's Arab minority and was immediately criticized by an Israeli Arab leader. Many Israeli Arabs (search) want to remain in Israel, both because of the higher standard of living and concerns that a future Palestinian state may not be democratic.
During more than three years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Palestinian militants have frequently attacked Israeli settlers and the soldiers sent to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protect them. In Gaza, Israel controls one-third of the land, while 1.3 million Palestinians live in the remainder of the crowded strip.
The Palestinians want Israel to dismantle all of the more than 150 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war. They have warned that unilateral Israeli actions will not lead to peace.