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Israel to Push 'Road Map' Peace Plan - 2003-11-23

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has appointed a team of top cabinet ministers to re-start peace talks with the Palestinians. At the same time he said he is considering taking unilateral steps to try to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Sharon met with the four senior ministers he has chosen to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians.

The group includes Foreign Affairs Minister Silvan Shalom and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Mr. Sharon and the ministers agreed that future talks with the Palestinians will be based on the international Roadmap to Peace plan, which calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

The ministers also discussed possible action the government might take before Mr. Sharon's first meeting with his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia, which could take place later this week. Mr. Sharon told the full cabinet he would soon unveil a set of unilateral steps that would require the approval of his ministers.

The plan reportedly includes the evacuation of some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Under the proposal, Israel would re-settle the residents of these communities in the Negev area in the south of the country.

But right-wing ministers of Mr. Sharon's governing coalition threatened to resign if the prime minister adopts the plan.

Palestinian officials reacted with great skepticism to the reports.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat suggested that Mr. Sharon's office is floating ideas in order to boost his popularity within Israel and answer criticism that he is stalling on efforts to revive the peace process. Mr. Erekat said he doubted that Mr. Sharon had any real intention of ever implementing these proposals.