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Sharon Speech on Israeli Concessions Elicits Mixed Reactions - 2003-11-28

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has spoken again of painful concessions his country must make for peace. But he has yet to provide details of what those concessions might include. His latest remarks on Thursday came amid a flurry of renewed diplomatic activity and growing domestic and international pressure on him to end more than three years of violence and bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Ariel Sharon's message was to the point. He says he wants peace with the Palestinians and to do that Israel will have to make painful sacrifices and territorial concessions.

Mr. Sharon has often spoken of painful concessions and his desire for peace. He has thus far offered no details of what those concessions would look like and how far he will go to achieve peace.

Political columnist Akiva Eldar of Israel's Haaretz newspaper says Mr. Sharon's speech on Thursday must be seen in the context of growing domestic and international criticism of his policies, and pressure from unofficial peace initiatives.

"I think what's new is the accumulation of statements that have been coming from Sharon in the last few weeks and the fact that this coincides with initiatives coming from various parts of the Israeli society and politics as well as the messages coming from Washington and Europe," said Akiva Eldar.

Three years of violence with no end in sight have even brought criticism from Mr. Sharon's own army chief of staff and from several retired senior security officials.

The internationally-backed road map peace plan has stalled. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians have taken all the required actions, even under the preliminary phase of the plan.

Even Israel's staunchest ally, the United States has been critical. In a speech in London last week, President Bush bluntly outlined what Mr. Sharon needs to do.

"Israel should freeze settlement construction, dismantle unauthorized outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people and not prejudice final negotiations with the placement of walls and fences," said President Bush.

The United States has also trimmed $290 million from a $9 billion loan guarantee package for Israel. While the reduction was small in percentage terms, it does symbolize Washington's frustration with Israel over its continued settlement activity and construction of a security barrier partly through Palestinian land.

And U.S. officials have praised private Israeli and Palestinian efforts to get the peace process going, which have angered Mr. Sharon.

The so-called Peoples' Voice initiative was launched by noted Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh and retired Israeli security chief Ami Ayalon. There is also what is called the Geneva Accord, which was drafted by unofficial Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Both plans have received praise from members of the Bush Administration and are reportedly garnering support in the U.S. Congress. Negotiators for the Geneva Accord are to finalize their initiative at a signing ceremony in Geneva on Monday.

Mr. Sharon says he wants to meet with new Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to talk peace. But, he also warned the Palestinians time is running out, adding that if peace talks don't move forward, he will initiate unilateral action.

The Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath took that to mean Israel might try to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, a position he called "rude and arrogant."

Palestinian political scientist, Ali Jarbawi, from Birzeit University in Ramallah, says Palestinians don't know what Mr. Sharon has in mind, but they first want to see some basic improvements in their daily lives.

"We're looking for these checkpoints to be removed, we're looking for the Israeli aggression, incursions to stop," he said. "We are looking for a solution that would end occupation."

Most Palestinians doubt that Mr. Sharon is willing to make the kind of peace they want, to include a viable independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with part of Jerusalem as its capital.

Mr. Sharon has accepted the road map peace plan, including the creation of a Palestinian State, and territorial concessions. He says what is standing in the way or progress is the Palestinian Authority's unwillingness or inability to halt attacks and dismantle terrorist organizations.

But Israeli political commentator, Akiva Eldar disagrees.

"I think he knows that he's not the man who can cut the deal," he said. "So, I think that's the reason that Sharon started talking about a unilateral deal that would impose on the Palestinians a kind of homeland, a Bantustan, which they would never accept in any bilateral deal with Israel."

Mr. Eldar believes that for now, Prime Minister Sharon is buying time.

Mr. Sharon has sent his son, Omri, a member of parliament, to London for talks with Palestinian officials, including Jibril Rajoub, security advisor to Yasser Arafat.

Israeli officials will also be meeting with U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns to discuss how to get the road map plan moving again.