Sharon hints at dismantling some settlements
In comments which go beyond any of his past public pronouncements, the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, has referred to specific settlements he would be prepared to dismantle in a final agreement with the Palestinians.
He now believes agreement can be reached more quickly than anticipated as a result of the war in Iraq.
The Israeli defence establishment, meanwhile, announced yesterday it was lowering the level of alert regarding a possible attack by Iraq. Israelis could dismantle the rooms they had sealed against a possible gas attack, and pack away their gas mask kits.
Mr Sharon, who spearheaded a settlement drive in the West Bank in the early 1990s, has in the past only been prepared to vaguely commit to "painful compromises" for peace, but in an interview published yesterday in the daily Haaretz, he suggested that some settlements in the heart of the West Bank, like Shiloh and Beit El, would ultimately have to be ceded.
"There will be a parting from places that are connected to the whole course of our history. As a Jew, this agonises me ... I feel that the rational necessity to reach a settlement is overcoming my feelings."
Mr Sharon said that "eventually" a Palestinian state would arise, and that Israel's reoccupation of cities like Nablus and Jenin was a "temporary" security necessity.
The Prime Minister questioned the morality of ruling over another people. "I do not think that we have the strength for that. It is a very heavy burden on the public, and it raises ethical problems and heavy economic problems."
He said the US-led invasion of Iraq had "shaken" the Arab world in general, and the Palestinians in particular. "There is, therefore, a chance to reach an agreement faster than people think."
However, Palestinian officials and dovish Israeli leaders said the ultimate intention of Mr Sharon - a vociferous opponent of the Oslo peace accords - was to delay a political solution which would require major concessions.
They pointed to his comment in the interview that he had passed "14 or 15 reservations" to the White House regarding the US-backed "road map ."
By contrast, hawks in Mr Sharon's cabinet threatened that an about-face by Mr Sharon could herald the end of his government.
Mr Sharon also endorsed the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as the new Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, saying "he understands it is impossible to vanquish Israel by means of terrorism".
In Ramallah, Mr Abbas was busy yesterday trying to cobble together a new government - the first not to be headed by Mr Yasser Arafat. The PLO central committee was scheduled to meet last night in Ramallah to finalise the ministerial line-up.
Mr Arafat was said to have rejected one list of ministers in which some of his loyalists were sidelines, and which included several pro-reform politicians who have been critical of him.