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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued a statement on Wednesday clarifying his position on the disengagement plan and on the international road map, eager to assuage a torrent of concerns that were voiced following statements made by his senior adviser, Dov Weisglass in an interview with Haaretz [Full text of interview in today's Haaretz Magazine].

Sharon said he supports the road map, the international-sponsored plan calling for a process that will eventually result in the creation of a Palestinian state.

This contradicted statements made by Weisglass, the former director of the Prime Minister's Office, who said the disengagement plan was actually meant to "freeze the diplomatic process" and pause for an indefinite period of time any chance for a Palestinian state.

Sharon laid the "blame for the diplomatic freeze on the Palestinians who refuse to carry out their commitments and continue along the path of terrorism, violence and incitement."

The prime minister added that "in the absence of a Palestinian [negotiating] partner, the government initiated the disengagement plan to bolster Israel's diplomatic standing, improve its ability to defend its citizens, and ease the suffering of the civilian population."

Sharon said the disengagement plan was meant to serve "until the time at which a Palestinian partner could be found who would fulfill all the required commitments in the road map, and with whom it would be possible to hold diplomatic negotiations and move ahead toward peace."

Weisglass, who is on holiday abroad, was interviewed on Israel Radio and said his comments were "taken out of context."

He explained that Israel is prevented from participating in a diplomatic process because of the situation, in which the Palestinians persist with terrorism.

The senior adviser said Israel hopes for a change in the Palestinian side that will result in a diplomatic process.

Weisglass also emphasized Israel's support for the road map, which he said is based on the principle that no diplomatic talks will begin before an end to terrorism.

U.S. accepts PM's explanation

The clarifications that the Bush administration sought from the government of Israel following the publication of excerpts of the interview with Weisglass on Wednesday have been received and proved satisfactory, State Department officials said.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Bush administration does not doubt Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's commitment to the road map.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. told Israel that Weisglass' comments do not match Israel's official government position as presented to the Bush administration.

But Ereli also said Israel informed the U.S. administration that Sharon remains committed to the road map peace plan and to President George W. Bush's vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On the domestic front, however, reactions to Weisglass' comments, across the political spectrum were less kind.

Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres said Sharon had never told him that the disengagement plan was meant to freeze the peace process. "He who seeks half-peace will bring half-war," Peres said.

Hadash MK Ahmed Tibi sent a letter to the U.S. ambassador in Israel Dan Kurtzer asking whether "the American administration is a partner to Sharon's political deceit, which Weisglass revealed with incriminating candor."

Tibi said Weisglass' comments "bolster what we have said all along, that the [disengagement] plan is a `Sharon bluff.'"

Yahad chairman Yossi Beilin said Weisglass' "frightening comments" were uttered in a rare moment of truth, and show Sharon's real, dangerous intentions.

The remarks "reveal the fact that it is Sharon who is not a partner for peace, and the peace camp must work for him to be overthrown," said Beilin.

On the right, National Union MK Zvi Hendel said Weisglass' comments stem from political considerations, namely to appease the right for the short term.

For his part, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said yesterday that Weisglass' remarks oblige Israel to reconsider its policies in the territories, and the U.S. and international community to redefine their demands of Israel if they would like to see a genuine peace process in the Middle East. (see full interview page 2)