Sharon warns he will 'sever' Israelis from Palestinians

The Israeli Prime Minister has warned that he would implement a unilateral policy of "severing" Israelis from Palestinians, if they failed to act against the gunmen and the bombers as part of a negotiated peace within months.

In a policy speech in Herzliya near Tel Aviv, Ariel Sharon said this would entail redeploying the army to a line determined by Israel's security, and the evacuation of isolated settlements. He would not specify where the line would be drawn, or how many settlements would be removed, but said that "Israel will not remain where it is today".

He would only say that he would remove communities that would not be "part of the state of Israel in a permanent solution". At the same time, his Government would reinforce those that would be within the state (though it would establish no new ones).

He contended ­ though his critics will need convincing ­ that the new line would not mark a final border.

He also pledged to speed up the construction of the security barrier, which has been widely condemned for causing unnecessary hardship to Palestinians and pre-empting a negotiated solution.

His proposals drew criticims from the United States. "We would oppose any unilateral steps that block the road toward negotiations under the road map," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

"The United States believes that a settlement must be negotiated and we would oppose any effort ? any Israeli effort ? to impose a settlement," he said.

The Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia said he was "disappointed to hear that he [Sharon] is threatening the Palestinians".

He added: "We are committed to reaching a permanent agreement and to put an end to the conflict. If Mr Sharon is ready to start negotiations we can do it sooner than anybody can expect."

Mr Sharon promised "maximum coordination" and reiterated Israel's adherence to the international "road-map" as the best way to peace and tranquillity. "We will spare no effort," he said, "to put the plan into action, if the Palestinians eliminate terrorism and implement reforms".

Hard-line right-wingers noted that the Prime Minister did not mention Israel's 14 reservations, which would have watered down the plan drafted by the US, European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

But Mr Sharon's message to Mr Qureia was a blunt: "We are not going to wait forever."

While severing Israelis from Palestinians would not, he claimed, destroy the possibility of implementing the road-map, he warned the Palestinians that they would get less by waiting than by negotiating in earnest now.

As bait for Mr Qureia, he offered to ease living conditions for the Palestinian population ­ a familiar dish of pulling troops out of Palestinian towns, issuing more permits for workers and businessmen to enter Israel.

He also undertook to confiscate no more land for settlement expansion and to dismantle unauthorised settler outposts. He said nothing about releasing prisoners, an important Palestinian demand.

The Israeli left is waiting to see whether he really does dismantle any of the 100 outposts.

The settlement movement is already threatening to mobilise its supporters in the ruling coalition to bring Mr Sharon down. But polls suggest that most Israelis are tired of allowing the settler minority to dictate the national agenda.

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