Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reportedly offered for the first time to remove some settlements in the West Bank in return for peace with the Palestinians. But he insists the Palestinians must give up their key demand for refugees to return to their former homes inside Israel.
The long-time champion of the right of Jews to settle in the West Bank says he is ready to make what he calls "painful compromises" for the sake of peace.
In a wide-ranging interview published Sunday in the Haaretz newspaper, Mr. Sharon actually named two Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Shiloh and Beit El, that he said he is prepared to dismantle.
The interview was published as a senior Sharon official flew to Washington to hold talks with the U.S. administration on a so-called road-map for peace that proposes the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005.
The prime minister has strong reservations about the plan but says he has no doubt there will eventually be such a state as Israelis see no need to rule over the Palestinians and "run their lives".
At the same time, Mr. Sharon says the Palestinians will also have to make concessions. He says Israel will not allow the return of Palestinians to their former homes, which are now part of the Jewish State.
The Palestinian demand for the "right of return" was one of the main reasons for the breakdown of peace talks in July 2000. Within two months, violence erupted between Palestinians and Israelis and since then more than 3,000 people have died. Israeli troops also moved into Palestinian self-rule areas but Mr. Sharon says they will be withdrawn as soon as the security situation improves.
He also says the U.S. led war against Iraq has shaken the Arab world generally and the Palestinians in particular, and has opened the door for new peace-making opportunities in the region.
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat says Mr. Sharon's comments seem to be a public relations exercise aimed at improving Israel's image in the international community. Mr. Erekat says the Palestinian leadership is not interested in words but deeds.