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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 April, 2003, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Sharon hints at 'settlement' deal
Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon says he is prepared to make 'painful concessions'
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated he is willing to remove some Jewish settlements in the West Bank for peace with the Palestinians.

In an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz, Mr Sharon said he is ready to take steps "that are painful for every Jew and for me personally".

He also spoke positively of the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, saying that he understands that you cannot fight Israel with terror.

In the interview published on Sunday, Mr Sharon, long a champion of Jewish settlements on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, seemed to go further than usual with his comments.

Important timing

But the BBC's Middle East correspondent James Reynolds says that although Mr Sharon indicated some settlements would, in the end, have to go, he did not elaborate.

I know that we will have to part with some of these places
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon's comments come as United States President George W Bush plans to publish a "road map" for peace in the region that calls for a Palestinian state by 2005.

Our correspondent says the timing is important, as is Mr Sharon's intended audience.

"He chose deliberately to speak to the Ha'aretz newspaper, a leading left-wing publication, sure that his comments will be seen abroad," he said.

On Saturday, Mr Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Wigless, set off for to Washington to discuss Israeli reservations about the plan, which is backed by the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

In his newspaper interview, Mr Sharon said that because of the war in Iraq there is now an opportunity to construct a new relationship between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world.

But it is the former army general's comments on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, that will be looked at most closely.

"Our whole history is bound up with these places: Bethlehem, Shiloh, Beit El," the prime minister said.

"I know that we will have to part with some of these places."

Cautious response

He added: "I have decided to make every effort to reach a [peace] settlement. I feel that the rational necessity to reach a settlement is overcoming my feelings."

The international community says Jewish settlements are illegal under international law. Israel disputes this.

Mr Sharon's remarks drew a cautious response from Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian minister close to President Yasser Arafat.

He said the prime minister's comments seemed to be "public relations tactics".

Mr Erekat added: "He speaks vaguely in English about painful concessions for peace while giving orders in Hebrew to intensify settlement activities."

The road map is a three-phase diplomatic plan drawn up by the Americans, Europeans, Russians, and United Nations (the so called quartet) and meant to lead to a full Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty in three years.

It calls for a series of measures, including a halt to Palestinian violence in a 30-month-old uprising and an end to Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Attention is expected to shift back to the long-running conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians when the war in Iraq is over.

The BBC's Simon Wilson
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