Israel ponders settlement halt

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon makes a key speech Thursday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has hinted in recent weeks that he is contemplating "unilateral measures" to ease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For many Israelis, the proof of his sincerity will be the removal of some of the Jewish settlements and outposts - considered illegal under international law - built on Palestinian land. No Israeli leader has ever pulled back Jewish settlers from Arab lands without a peace agreement in place.

But these days a deal between Israelis and Palestinians seems remote, which may be what is bringing Mr. Sharon to the point of action - or at least to talking about it. In a speech Thursday, he is expected to clarify what his thinking is and indicate whether or not he will act on it.

Others aren't so convinced. Zeev Schiff, a veteran military reporter for Israel's leading newspaper, Ha'aretz, says the prime minister has so far kept his intentions to himself. "He invites people to speak with him, but he mostly listens," Mr. Schiff says. "We have to wait and see."

Sharon's speech Thursday takes place amid a noisy public debate over the wisdom of unilateralism. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is allied with Sharon in at least outwardly favoring a unilateral move, except that he wants the Israeli government to act boldly. Sharon is thought to be considering removing settlers from one or two settlements as a first step toward a broader withdrawal.

If a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians seems impossible, Mr. Olmert said in a speech Wednesday, "Israel must undertake an immediate, grand, one-sided move. The pain will, in any case, be great, which is why Israel should not turn to small moves, but must act at once," he said.

Olmert and others say they are increasingly concerned with resolving Israel's demographic dilemma. If Jews are to remain the majority in a democratic state of Israel, then it must part ways with the Palestinians now under occupation before they begin to demand citizenship and full political rights. According to some estimates, within a few years Palestinians will outnumber Jews in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

If the price of maintaining democracy and a Jewish majority is giving the Palestinians a state, then so be it, these Israelis argue. Gerald Steinberg, an Israeli political scientist who favors Israel acting on its own to separate itself from the Palestinians, sees a "slow but linear movement toward partial unilateral withdrawal," even among hawkish Israelis who have long vowed not to cede land. "The logic" of Israel acting unilaterally "is compelling," Mr. Steinberg says, "and Sharon is being forced to adopt that logic."

But Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - like Sharon and Olmert, are both members of Israel's hawkish Likud party - have come out against unilateral action. Mr. Shalom says it amounts to giving "a prize to terrorism"; Mr. Netanyahu observes that "one must get something in return for any measures taken."

Further to the right, Zeev Hever, a leader of the Amana Movement of settlers, is even more critical of Sharon. Speaking to reporters Tuesday at the "outpost" of Migron - an outpost is a settlement-in-the-making which even the Israeli government considers illegal - Mr. Hever equated the government evicting settlers with "mental illness." The Israeli government is expected to clear out Migron in the coming days.

Hever and Sharon are reported to be longtime friends, and it may surprise Hever to hear that Sharon is contemplating moving against settlers. The prime minister has been in many ways the patron of the settlement movement since Israel seized those territories in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Sharon's critics, including those within the Israeli government, caution against expecting a turnabout from the prime minister. Sharon's hints, says one senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity, are "a deflecting move aimed at the US administration; he has no intention of doing anything serious because he cannot pay the political price to remove even one ... settlement."

The US is still promoting its moribund road map to peace, and US officials have come out against any unilateral moves by Israel. Even so, Sharon's behind-the-screen contemplations of unilateral action at least offer the hope that the momentum toward peace may pick up, and that impression may be useful to the US in its efforts to convince other nations that its policies in the Middle East are bearing fruit.

As the Israeli official says, "The administration only wants an overall atmosphere of movement; they don't want serious movement."

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