Sharon to say he will consult with U.S. on political steps
Sharon to present long-awaited plan at Herzliya Conference on Thursday; Foreign Minister Shalom: Israel should explore Assad's offer of talks.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to say at the Herzliya Conference on Thursday that while he may reconsider the situation in the territories if the Palestinians don't indicate a willingness to work with Israel in the next few months, any move will be made in consultation with the security establishment and the United States, and will be brought to the government for discussion and approval.
In his much-anticipated speech at the conference on security issues, Sharon is expected to reiterate his commitment to the U.S.-backed road map and say that he will consider re-assessing the security situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - and evacuating settlements - if it becomes clear over the next few months that Israel has no Palestinian partner for peace and that the Palestinians aren't fighting terror.
Sharon is due to describe any unilateral steps as a stabilizing move that will leave an opening for renewing political negotiations in the future, and to tell the Palestinians that they would do better to play an active role in reaching an agreement than to allow Israel to set what benefits they would receive.
The prime minister said Wednesday in a meeting with U.S. Congress members that he is committed to the road map, along with the 14 reservations Israel has set out, and will make an effort to push it forward. He said unilateral steps could help Israel implement the road map by contributing to security and easing life for the Palestinians.
Sharon did not elaborate on what steps he might take, and it's not clear whether he intends to announce Thursday the possibility that settlements could be evacuated even before he decides that there is no one on the Palestinian side to work with him on implementing the road map.
Shalom slams talk of unilateral withdrawal Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom slammed talk Wednesday of a unilateral withdrawal by Israel from the territories in his speech to the Herzliya Conference.
Shalom said he was opposed to any unilateral steps that had political implications, as they would be a "prize to terrorism" and would serve only to weaken Israel's ability to negotiate in the future. He said that unilateral measures "will not help us progress and will not raise a sense of commitment in the Palestinians."
Shalom's comments echoed those made by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier in the day to the conference. Netanyahu insisted that "one must get something in return for any measures taken. Concessions must come in response to something." In an apparent jibe at the Geneva Accord and talk by Minister Ehud Olmert that he has a plan for a unilateral withdrawal, Netanyahu said, "the multiplicity of diplomatic plans interferes with the prime minister's direction of policy."
The finance minister also insisted that Israel currently does not have a Palestinian partner for negotiations on a permanent status agreement. He argued that a new Palestinian leadership could not prosper in a "poisonous Palestinian society which creates battalions of suicide bombers."
Netanyahu also called for construction on the West Bank security fence to be speeded up to separate between population centers on both side as well as preventing a "demographic exodus" of Palestinians from the territories to Israel and creating security and economic stability.
He said the government will allocate an additional NIS 700 million next year for the controversial barrier. "We will build this fence, the sooner the better," Netanyahu told the conference. Netanyahu said the extra funds for the fence will come from raising taxes on diesel fuel, a measure that went into effect late Tuesday. Netanyahu added he has instructed ministry officials to continue to allocate all the amounts needed to set up the barrier, to ensure budgetary considerations are not a delaying factor.
Shalom told the conference that the U.S.-backed road map was currently the best operative plan and called for the further easing of restrictions on the Palestinian civilian population. He too called for construction work on the security fence to be completed as soon as possible.
Should talks with the Palestinians fail, he said that the Syrian track should be explored. In response to recent comments by Syrian President Bashar Assad that he would like to restart negotiations with Israel, the foreign minister said that "we must not refuse a hand outstretched in peace, even if it is not for the right reasons," hinting that Syria was seeking to deflect criticism from the U.S. for harboring terrorist organizations.