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Sharon Says Main West Bank Settlements to Stay

Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday said major West Bank settlements will remain under Israeli control and will have territorial contiguity with the state of Israel. Mr. Sharon also called Iran's nuclear program unacceptable.

In a wide ranging question and answer session with Israeli editors, Ariel Sharon said major West Bank settlements will remain under Israeli control in any agreement with Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon says there is no possibility any Israeli government will give up big settlement blocs housing thousands of Israelis that have territorial contiguity with Israel proper. He says the settlements are areas where it is vital for Israel to have people live.

Mr. Sharon also said that Israel intended to keep control of the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, calling a group of small settlements in the Jordan Valley part of Israel's "security zone." The comments on Thursday were somewhat similar to remarks Mr. Sharon has made in the past, however Mr. Sharon has gone on record before as saying Israel will have to withdraw from some small settlements in any peace deal with Palestinians. Palestinians say continued Israeli settlement building is a violation of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, and is designed to prevent the formation of any viable Palestinian state.

Mr. Sharon also said Israel will move to arrest any members of the Islamic militant group Hamas who attempt to pass through Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank. Over the past few days several senior Hamas leaders have said they intend to contest Palestinian parliamentary elections in January. Over the past few weeks Israel has arrested hundreds of suspected Hamas militants, and on Thursday Mr. Sharon said negotiations with Palestinians will be adversely affected if Hamas makes a strong showing in the January elections.

Mr. Sharon also addressed the issue of Iran's nuclear program which Israeli officials have called their greatest security threat. Iranian officials say their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, but Israel's prime minister says Iran's position is unacceptable.

Mr. Sharon says Israel, cannot accept a situation in which Iran will own nuclear weapons. He says this much is clear to Israelis, and that Israelis will do what is needed to be prepared for such a situation.

Asked if Israel was considering a military strike against Iran, Mr. Sharon said before anyone took such a step, every effort would be made to pressure Iran to end its nuclear program, saying he believed such efforts can be "fruitful."

Mr. Sharon made his comments one day after former Labor Party Leader Shimon Peres left his party to declare his support for Mr. Sharon's newly formed centrist "Kadima" party, which polls indicate is a heavy favorite to win elections next March. Last week, Ariel Sharon quit the ruling Likud party and called early elections saying he wants a mandate from Israeli voters to set Israel's permanent border with the Palestinians.