Aide: Sharon Bluffing on Peace Plan

The real objective of Ariel Sharon's offer to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank is to freeze Palestinian statehood indefinitely, with U.S. blessing, the prime minister's point man with the Bush administration acknowledged in an interview published Wednesday.

The adviser, Dov Weisglass (search), also said Israel is avoiding negotiations with the Palestinians because it does not want to be forced into concessions on issues such as the future of Jerusalem and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.

The unusually frank comments, published in the Haaretz daily, contradicted the Israeli government's assurances that it remains committed to the U.S.-backed "road map" and its vision of Palestinian statehood, and that Israelis ready to resume peace negotiations once there is a change in Palestinian leadership.

Last month, Sharon said in an interview that Israel is no longer following the road map. However, his adviser's comments were the most detailed so far on Sharon's intentions.

Weisglass said Sharon's plan of "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians, to be carried out next year, is meant to prevent a resumption of negotiations. "It [the plan] supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians," he told Haaretz.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat (search) said "it's very obvious [Sharon's] plan was designed to undermine the road map."

Weisglass's comments appeared largely aimed at courting Israeli hardliners. The prime minister has lost his parliamentary majority over the plan, and has not been able to broaden his coalition during the summer recess. Parliament is reconvening next week and will vote on the Gaza withdrawal in coming months.

The adviser spoke as Israel's military waged a major military campaign against Palestinian militants in the northern Gaza Strip (search). The offensive was launched a week ago, in response to Palestinian rocket fire that killed two Israeli children.

Since then, 75 Palestinians have been killed. The military said its missiles have killed dozens of members of rocket squads and gunmen, but Palestinian hospital officials said 30 of the dead were civilians, including women and children.

In the area of fighting, Israel stepped up missile attacks and tank fire.

Early Wednesday, tanks fired several shells toward the Jebaliya refugee camp (search), scene of the heaviest fighting. The shell hit a house, killing a father and son, ages 55 and 25, and wounding eight members of the family, Palestinian hospital official said. The army said troops fired after an anti-tank shell was launched from the house.

Also Wednesday, a 15-year-old boy died of wounds, after being shot in the head by troops as he stood on the balcony of his home outside Jebaliya, doctors said.

Two missile strikes late Tuesday killed four Palestinian militants, two from Islamic Jihad (search) and two from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group with ties to Yasser Arafat's ruling Fatah movement.

One of the militants, Bashir Aldabash, 40, was a senior leader of the military wing of Islamic Jihad. The army said he was responsible for attacks that killed eight Israelis.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he hoped the Israeli campaign in northern Gaza — the deadliest there in four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting — would end soon.

"The immediate problem right now is that Israeli built-up areas are being hit by rockets and Sharon finds a need to respond to that. I hope it does not expand," Powell said. "And I hope ... that this operation can come to a conclusion quickly."

At the United Nations, the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli raid. U.S. Ambassador John Danforth called it "lopsided and unbalanced," because it did not mention Palestinian rocket attacks.

In Israel, meanwhile, Sharon's adviser delivered the most far-reaching comments by a senior Israeli official on Sharon's policy toward the Palestinians.

"The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process," Weisglass told the Haaretz daily. "Effectively, the whole package called the Palestinian state with all that entails has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission — all this with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress."

Weisglass said Bush administration officials supported Sharon's plan to freeze the peace process with the Palestinians and keep large West Bank settlements.

"What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns," he was quoted as saying.

Weisglass said that under Sharon's plan the vast majority of Jewish settlers in the West Bank would be allowed to stay. "Out of 240,000 settlers, 190,000 will not be moved from their place," Haaretz quoted him as saying.

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv had no immediate comment on the remarks.

Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres condemned Weisglass's remarks. "You cannot stop the world from turning," he told Israel Army Radio. "We will not know tranquility and security until there is peace."