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In his much-awaited "Herzliya Speech" this Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will emphasize Israel's commitment to the Road Map plan for an agreement with the Palestinians. He will also reiterate support for a contiguous Palestinian state, which he had articulated at the Aqaba summit.

Sharon will also state that, should it turn out to be impossible to make progress with the Road Map, Israel will consider implementing unilateral steps designed to reduce tensions between Jews and Arabs.

As Sharon sees it, these unilateral steps would create a maximum amount of security for Israel throughout an interim period that would last until circumstances appropriate for the resumption of talks with the Palestinian Authority materialize. A senior Israeli official clarified this weekend that "such unilateral steps would be taken only if it is proven definitively that the Road Map plan's potential has been fully exhausted."

Sharon will cite in his speech steps to be taken by Israel with the aim of creating trust prior to the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. The working assumption is that these steps will be taken under any scenario, either in a process of mutual agreement with the Palestinians, or in a unilateral fashion. The senior Israeli official explained that these measures will be on a small scale.

Sharon wants to coordinate his policies with the Bush administration. Officials in the White House regard the "Herzliya speech" as an important diplomatic event, and they are preparing a response to Sharon's statements. Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, plans to visit Washington after the speech, to discuss its policy implications with American officials.

The U.S. government has indicated its reservations about unilateral Israeli steps. It has expressly noted its opposition to any Israeli move that could damage the Road Map plan, and impede the future establishment of a Palestinian state.

Cognizant of the U.S. position, Israeli officials will emphasize that any unilateral steps will be security oriented, and not designed to create new political facts. According to the senior Israeli official, Sharon has no intention of declaring the annexation of any part of the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Israel remains committed to Oslo Agreement obligations, under which the sides are to refrain from actions that will predetermine aspects of a final status agreement, the official said. Under Israel's interpretation, these Oslo obligations mean Israel must refrain from annexation measures in the territories, just as the Palestinians are not to declare unilaterally the establishment of a state.