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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 August 2005, 13:02 GMT 14:02 UK
Israeli PM faces West Bank gamble
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC News diplomatic correspondent

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon intends to hold on to the large West Bank settlements
Even as Israeli forces moved in to clear four West Bank settlements, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reaffirmed his commitment to settlement construction.

Mr Sharon was referring to the large blocs of Ariel and Maale Adumim, and controversial plans for new suburbs linking the latter to Jerusalem.

He has made no secret of his intention to hold on the major West Bank blocs.

His stance could lead to confrontation with the US if it insists Israel give them up as part of a wider peace deal.

But Mr Sharon believes the US will not force Israel to take that step.

He takes as justification for this view a letter he received from US President George W Bush in April 2004 which talks of "new realities on the ground".

Gaza aftermath

But it is far from clear that this is the way the Bush administration sees things.

It wants to revive the internationally-backed peace plan - the "road map" - which insists at the outset on a freeze in Israeli settlement construction.

Building at the Maale Adumim settlement in the West Bank
Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, is already home to 35,000 settlers

So, on the face of things, Israel's pullout from Gaza has just laid the grounds for a potential diplomatic confrontation between Mr Bush and Mr Sharon.

One test will be the fate of some 24 unauthorised Israeli outposts on the West Bank - illegal even under Israeli law - that Mr Sharon promised the US he would dismantle in the aftermath of the initial disengagement.

Much now depends upon what happens in Gaza.

Will the Palestinians focus on peaceful reconstruction or will radical groups seek to use the abandoned settlements as launch-pads for attacks into Israel?

Will violence simply move from Gaza to the West Bank, where the Israeli Army will still patrol the area of the evacuated settlements?

Both Mr Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas are effectively entering pre-election periods.

Their focus is going to be very much on domestic politics. Their actions and statements must be judged in this light.

And the Americans may be reluctant to apply too much pressure at such a delicate time.

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