Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has given his conditional backing to a plan supported by the United States that calls for the founding of a Palestinian state. His announcement has been rejected by the Palestinian leadership and Israeli right-wingers.
Mr. Sharon has endorsed President Bush's call, made in a speech earlier this year, for far-reaching Palestinian reforms and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The Israeli prime minister said the proposal outlined by Mr. Bush offers a real opportunity for a peace agreement.
Mr. Sharon made his comments in a speech at a security conference on Wednesday in the town of Herzilya, north of Tel Aviv.
He added that political concessions to the Palestinians, like those made in the past, are irreversible.
The prime minister ruled out any possibility that Israel would re-take Palestinian self-rule areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that were established under interim peace accords signed since 1993. He said, Israel will not re-control territories from which it withdrew as a result of political agreements.
His speech came amid heightened Israeli military activity in the territories.
On Wednesday, Israeli military helicopters killed a senior member of the Islamic Jihad, Mustafa Sabah in a strike in Gaza City. Israel said Mr. Sabah, 34, was responsible for masterminding three attacks against Israeli tanks that killed seven soldiers.
Since June, following a campaign of suicide bombings, the Israel army has seized control over most cities in the West Bank, but Mr. Sharon, in his speech, insisted that the troops will not be stationed there permanently.
Mr. Sharon said that if he is re-elected in national elections at the end of January, he will set about building a unity government and a framework for peace as outlined by President Bush.
But there are areas of difference between the plan proposed by Mr. Bush and what the Israeli prime minister said he could accept.
Under the U.S. plan, a provisional Palestinian state with temporary borders would be created next year, followed by a final agreement on the borders of the state by 2005. But in his speech Mr. Sharon made it clear he was not accepting any time-frame.
Mr. Sharon said before a Palestinian state with temporary borders was formed, the Palestinian Authority must go through a process of sweeping reform.
He also said no progress was possible while Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, remains in power and that the Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized.
Mr. Sharon says while he would allow a Palestinian police force to maintain law and order, he would not allow an army that could threaten Israel.
The head of Israel's National Religious Party, Effi Eitam, attacked the plan, saying that a Palestinian state in any form poses an existential threat to Israel.
The leader of Israel's Labor Party, Amram Mitzna, who will face Mr. Sharon in the January election, charged that Prime Minister Sharon's proposal was only an attempt to win votes for the upcoming general election.
Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat also rejected Mr. Sharon's proposals. He says Israel's prime minister is repeating ideas he has long held: that a Palestinian state should be confined to 40 percent of the West Bank and 70 percent of the Gaza Strip. This, he says, is unacceptable to Palestinians.