PM Delays Pullout to mid-August; Vows Settlement Blocs Will Grow

The evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank will begin "immediately after Tisha B'Av," namely August 15-17, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday. An official announcement will be made after Independence Day.

In interviews with television channels 1, 2 and 10, Sharon said that he had decided to respond positively to requests from rabbis not to carry out the evacuation during the three-week mourning period between the 17th of Tamuz (July 24) and the 9th of Av (August 14), known as "The Three Weeks," or Bein Hametzarim ("between the straits").

Sharon mentioned in all of the interviews that "the dream" of Israeli control over all of the territories could not be realized today due to the change in circumstances. The settlement blocs, however, "will be a part of the State of Israel, territorially connected to Israel, and with a much larger population than there is today."

The prime minister said that final border arrangements with the Palestinians would be ironed out in the final stage of the road map.

Sharon said very little new in his television interviews, primarily reiterating statements he made to the media on the eve of the Pesach holiday. He promised that the disengagement would go ahead because it was important for Israel and would improve its position.

On the political front, the prime minister said that he was "definitely determined" to run for a third term in the next elections.

"I am 77 years old, and I have the strength and determination to run in the next elections," he said. "It is important today for the country to be headed by individuals with proven capabilities."

Aiming a barb at Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his main rival for leadership of the Likud, the prime minister said that after the disengagement, "I intend to deal a lot more with the economic issues and social welfare issues. These are matters of much importance - there is much distress - and I am sure that the finance minister will deal with them too."

Asked about soldiers who are refusing to obey orders to evacuate settlers, Sharon said "a soldier who is unable to carry out the order, for moral or other reasons, must request a release from his commander and, of course, bear responsibility [for his actions] and face the consequences."

Sharon declined to voice an opinion on the fate of the evacuated settlers' homes, noting only that a decision on the matter would be made in good time.

"There are considerations either way, and in order to make a decision, the Palestinians' position has to be clear," he said. "I know what pictures will be shown around the world [if the houses are demolished]; on the other hand, I wouldn't want to see terrorists raising their flags and dancing on Jewish homes."

The prime minister promised that every settler who is evacuated will have a place to live, and that if Gaza Strip residents express a desire to relocate to the area of Nitzanim, they will be able to do so.

Sharon reiterated that there will not be a second disengagement, saying the allegation by Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin that Sharon's actions were leading to the division of Jerusalem was "a lie."

In all of the interviews, the prime minister said that after the pullout, the path to negotiations based on the road map peace plan would be open, provided that the Palestinian fulfilled their obligations.

Sharon also adopted a conciliatory line with regard to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, reminiscing about their long-time acquaintance and previous meetings. He did, however, criticize the PA leader for not fulfilling his obligations vis-a-vis terror, and said that Abbas had erred in the agreement he had reached with Hamas.

Sharon did not say when he would meet with Abbas, noting only that the office's of the two leaders were in "almost daily" contact.