Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, has defied international and Palestinian
objections to go ahead with a bitterly controversial plan to expand the largest
Jewish settlement on the West Bank by 3,500 homes.
The leak of Mr Sharon's remarks yesterday to an Israeli parliamentary committee
came as he prepared to visit President George Bush next week in the US for talks
at which he is expected to seek a green light for the expansion, which would
join up the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim with Jerusalem.
Palestinian leaders, who swiftly denounced Mr Sharon's restatement of the plan,
see the project to build in the two-mile "E-1" corridor between the
existing settlement and Jerusalem as a further step to isolate the Arab eastern
sector of the city from the West Bank and undermine its viability as the capital
of a future Palestinian state.
A participant at the meeting between Mr Sharon and the Knesset's Foreign Affairs
and Defence Committee told the Associated Press that Mr Sharon had declared:
"There is a need to carry out construction in E-1. This programme has been
in existence for 10 years. We should definitely move ahead with it." The
source said Mr Sharon had given no date for beginning the project, for which
some preliminary clearance work has already been carried out. In a concession
to the Palestinians, Mr Sharon told the committee the two sides were discussing
the release of a further 400 prisoners.
The Prime Minister's remarks on Ma'ale Adumim are the clearest signal yet of
growing Israeli confidence that despite initial verbal objections to the expansion
project, the US administration does not intend to make an issue of the plan,
let alone threaten to apply any sanctions to halt it.
The senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, who has already written to
international leaders urging them to halt the project, said yesterday: "If
carried out, this E-1 project will destroy the peace process and will undermine
prospects for any future negotiations on the final status agreements. We call
upon the US to stop this project if they want to give the peace process a chance."
Mr Sharon is expected to argue at his meeting with Mr Bush at the President's
ranch in Crawford, Texas, that the latter's acceptance last April that the big
Jewish "population centres" in the occupied West Bank should remain
within Israel in any final peace deal also applies to future expansion of Ma'ale
When the Israeli government's intentions to go ahead with the Ma'ale Adumim
expansion plan first resurfaced last month, Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary
of State, told The Los Angeles Times that it was at "odds with ... American
policy". But she was then forced into modifying her stance after a diplomatic
row which followed leaked - and disputed - remarks attributed to the US ambassador
in Tel Aviv, Dan Kurtzer, in which he was reported to have questioned whether
the "understanding" reached between Mr Bush and Mr Sharon last April
meant that the biggest settlements would necessarily remain Israel's in perpetuity.
Officials close to Mr Sharon were reported at the time to have blamed government
dissidents for the leak, saying that it was an attempt to sabotage his plan
to disengage from Gaza by indicating that the Prime Minister was receiving nothing
in return. But if so it appeared to backfire badly by if anything strengthening
Mr Sharon's hand with Washington. Paul Patin, the American embassy's spokesman,
said yesterday that the US administration continued to hold Israel to its commitments
under the internationally agreed road map to peace.
He added last night that "the issue for Jerusalem is one for final status
negotiations between the parties".
The road map stipulates an Israeli freeze on settlement construction as well
as Palestinian steps to dismantle the armed factions' "infrastructure".
But Israel has reinterpreted the road map to insist that the Palestinian requirement
is a precondition of the road map's operation rather than a step within it.
Efforts by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to crack down on militants
are being hampered by a struggle he is having with the young warlords of the
al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. After 15 rebellious gunmen fired on the Muqata presidential
compound in Ramallah last Thursday night and ransacked four restaurants patronised
by senior Palestinian officials and their families, Mr Abbas dismissed Haj Ismail
Jaber, chief of armed forces on the West Bank, and the Ramallah district commander,
Yunis al-Has. He is expected to sack or pension off dozens more.
"The security apparatus did not do its job," Mr Abbas told a public
meeting in the administrative capital at the weekend, "so it was crucial
to take a stand. We will not allow anyone to take the law into his own hands
and sabotage our situation." Mr Abbas has refused to accept the resignation
of his West Bank intelligence chief, Tawfiq Tirawi, who accused the other commanders
of lying. "They are hiding from you the truth about the security chaos,"
he is reported to have told Mr Abbas. "Many of them are avoiding carrying
out their duties."