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Sharon Pedges to Seek Approval Before Separating Israel from Palestinians - 2004-01-12

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged Monday to seek U.S. and Israeli parliamentary approval before taking any unilateral steps to separate Israel from the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon also promised to introduce such a plan only if he decides the Palestinians are not willing to implement the international road map for peace plan.

Mr. Sharon addressed the parliament Monday during a debate over his threat to unilaterally cut Israel off from the Palestinians.

But if his critics expected a showdown, they were to be disappointed. Mr. Sharon said it was too early to write off the road map, which calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

He added that, if it becomes clear within the next few months that the Palestinians are not living up to their obligations under the plan, he will take unilateral steps. He pledged to bring the plan before the Knesset - the Israeli parliament - for a comprehensive debate and approval.

The prime minister said at this stage he will not disclose what those steps might be, as the government is still in the process of drawing up a contingency plan in case peace talks break down.

Mr. Sharon said he will hold extensive discussions on the issue with what he called "Israel's world partners, led by the United States." During his speech, he avoided any mention of his threat to dismantle some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

His address came one day after more than 100,000 Israelis, including members of his own government, held a demonstration in Tel Aviv against any proposed evacuation of settlements. Mr. Sharon told a gathering of foreign journalists in Jerusalem on Sunday that his government and not demonstrators would decide policy.

Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, predicted in an interview Monday that preparations for a unilateral separation plan, including the removal of settlements, would be ready by June.

He said the process of implementing such a plan will likely begin in the latter part of this year.