Arafat dismisses Sharon's remarks on settlements

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Wednesday dismissed as meaningless Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's reported comments that he would move some Jewish settlements as part of a unilateral plan for dealing with the Mideast conflict.

Palestinian officials have condemned unilateral moves by Israel, saying they would never lead to peace, and urged Israel to focus instead on returning to the negotiating table to work out a peace deal.

"It's all a show," Arafat told reporters outside his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Also Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key mediator in peace efforts, in Geneva.

Shalom told Army Radio that Egypt expressed interest in "warming relations" with Israel, and Mubarak was committed in principle to returning the Egyptian ambassador, recalled three years ago when Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed and fighting erupted.

Sharon's reported statement Tuesday about moving some settlements appeared to be part of a campaign to prepare Israeli public opinion for an undefined West Bank pullback. Some reports said the action would include removing some settlements and annexing some West Bank land.

Sharon told members of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee he would take unilateral steps before Israel reaches the desperation point in its stalled negotiations with the Palestinians, according to lawmakers present at the meeting.

"He said his first commitment is to the road map (peace plan), but if that fails we will have to make unilateral moves," Likud lawmaker Ehud Yatom said.

"I asked him if his plan includes evacuating settlements and he said yes. He talked about a complex and difficult plan that would be controversial."

The U.S.-backed "road map" envisions an immediate end to violence and the freezing of settlement construction on the way to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. It does not define the exact borders of such a state.

Palestinians say the settlements, on land they claim for a future state, are a major obstacle to reaching a peace agreement. They also protest the construction of a barrier Israel is building that snakes deep inside the West Bank in some areas.

Israel says the complex of fences, walls and trenches is needed for security: The Palestinians say that its planned route -- which could leave almost half the territory on the "Israeli" side -- transforms the project into an Israeli land grab.

Arafat said Sharon's actions belied his words: "The truth is the daily construction of settlements, and the daily construction of the fence."

Sharon's comments Tuesday appear motivated at least in part by a need to placate an Israeli public increasingly unhappy with the occupation of millions of Palestinians and three years of violence.

A unilateral Israeli action would fall short of Palestinian demands for a state in all the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in east Jerusalem -- and therefore discussing it might pressure the Palestinians to be more flexible in peace talks.

If Israel is forced to take unilateral moves, "the Palestinians will be very, very unhappy, because they will get a lot less than what they could get in the long run" through negotiations, lawmaker Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio Wednesday.

Israelis have increasingly despaired of the possibility of reaching a full peace agreement with the Palestinians, especially because of Palestinian demands for a refugees' return to Israel and for much of Jerusalem.

Sharon has refused to specify his plan, but media reports say it includes the removal of the 16 Jewish settlements in Gaza as well as the possible evacuation of some West Bank settlements and the annexation of others.

Israel would then consider turning the West Bank barrier into a permanent border with the Palestinians, according to the reports.

Jewish settlers condemned Sharon's reported remarks, saying removing settlements was "illegal and immoral."

Two of Sharon's hard-line coalition partners threatened to pull out of the government if he evacuates populated settlements, potentially bringing down the government.

Seeking new partners or trying to deter the hard-liners, Sharon met Tuesday with leaders of the dovish Labor Party.

Meanwhile, Israel demolished a one-story house in the Ras al-Amud neighborhood in east Jerusalem on Wednesday using a crane-like construction vehicle to push the walls down. A Palestinian man holding a toddler argued with the police, and two demonstrators lay down in front of the vehicle, which drove around them.

The Israeli Interior Ministry refused to comment. Israel routinely demolishes homes built by Arabs without proper permits.