Sharon vows again to break from Palestinians

In the face of international opposition and amid jeers from his own party, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, vowed yesterday to press ahead with his plans for unilateral separation from the Palestinians unless the Palestinian Authority (PA) dismantles militant groups as part of a negotiated peace within months.

As Mr Sharon spoke in Tel Aviv, Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, announced in Ramallah that he had abandoned efforts to arrange a summit with Mr Sharon to restart peace talks. Nine Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops in a week.

At a conference of his Likud Party, Mr Sharon reiterated his plan to impose a unilateral "severance" from the Palestinians. "If it turns out that there is no partner on the Palestinian side, we will cut ourselves off from them both politically and physically," he said.

Mr Sharon first outlined the plan in a speech last month, but the United States government said it would oppose "any Israeli effort to impose a settlement". His message yesterday was that he was going ahead, despite that opposition. He said it had become clear in recent months that "there is no partner, and the Palestinians are refusing our hand offering peace. If the terror attacks continue, we will have to take action ourselves."

Under Mr Sharon's plan, unless the PA takes on the militants as part of a negotiated peace, the Israeli army will withdraw to a line of Israel's choice, turning over some of the occupied territories to Palestinian control but annexing the rest. Mr Sharon has refused to be drawn on where the line would be, but it is widely believed it may be the route of the controversial "separation fence" Israel is building in the West Bank. The "fence" is a series of concrete walls, trenches and high metal fences equipped with electronic sensors. Instead of running along the internationally recognised Green Line border, it cuts deep into the West Bank.

Mr Sharon is unlikely to give up as much of the occupied territories as the Palestinians would accept as part of a peace settlement, but he said yesterday that Palestinians would get more in a negotiated peace.

Mr Sharon's plans face as much opposition among his own party faithful as they do internationally, but for different reasons. To many in the right-wing Likud, any Palestinian state, even one imposed by Israel, is anathema. And delegates were enraged because, under such a pull-out, Mr Sharon would evacuate some Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and hand them over to the Palestinians.

"It is clear that in a permanent peace accord, we will have to give up some of the Jewish settlements," he told delegates, to a storm of boos and catcalls.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, who is close to Mr Sharon, told Israeli television he believed it would be six months before the Israeli government decided it has given the PA enough time and decided to go ahead with such a plan.

Mr Qureia, said he was giving up on efforts to schedule new talks. "I am sorry to say destruction continues, aggression continues, bombardment continues and I don't think that in this situation that any meeting will have significant results," he said. "We are not looking for a meeting that is a photo opportunity."

Concern is growing in Israel over a hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague over the "separation fence", scheduled for next month. The government is worried that the hearing will damage Israel's image in international opinion. The Justice Minister, Tommy Lapid ­ the head of Mr Sharon's main coalition partner, the Shinui Party ­ warned that Israel risked being ostracised and becoming "the South Africa of today".

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