JERUSALEM (CNN) # Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to be urging Israelis to accept giving up land for peace and advocating an end to what he called “occupation.”
“You cannot like the word, but what is happening is an occupation # to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation. I believe that is a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians,” he said Monday.
Those were stunning words from the longtime hawk and backer of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
“It can’t continue endlessly,” Sharon said. “Do you want to stay forever in Jenin, in Nablus, in Ramallah, in Bethlehem? I don’t think that’s right.”
On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet voted to accept # with reservations # the U.S.-supported “road map” to peace, clearing the way for a series of steps that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state within three years.
The first phase of the road map involves the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian zones reoccupied during the current uprising and a freeze on settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinian officials are required to crack down on militant groups that have carried out attacks against Israelis.
The Palestinian Authority accepted the plan last month after it was drafted by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, the so-called Mideast Quartet.
The Israeli Cabinet’s 12-7 vote, with four abstentions, marked the first time an Israeli government has formally accepted the principle of a Palestinian state.
But Sharon faces a skeptical public. In a newspaper poll Monday, 51 percent said implementing the road map would not lead to peace, while 43 percent said it would.
The stakes will be high for this week’s expected meeting between Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas will call for immediate implementation of the road map, including an end to Israeli military operations in Palestinian areas and a freeze on any settlement expansion, Palestinian advisers said.
Both steps are key to convincing radical Palestinian groups to stop attacks against Israel, the Palestinians said.
But Israeli sources said Sharon will reiterate his long-held position that the first step must be a clear and visible Palestinian crackdown on groups such as Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for four recent suicide bombings against Israelis.
Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization, has acknowledged attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers and has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said Israel wants to see a “complete dismantling of the infrastructure of terror” by Abbas’ government.
“We cannot have negotiation by day and killing us at night,” Ayalon said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Sharon and Abbas failed to achieve any breakthroughs in their last meeting more than a week ago.
And a series of suicide bombings by Islamic militant groups befinning shortly before the meeting was seen as a “declaration of war” by Sharon’s government.
Now the two men face U.S. pressure to deliver, with a possible Mideast summit # with President Bush as host # perhaps hinging on what comes out of this week’s talks.
A three-way summit involving Sharon, Abbas and Bush could be called within 10 days.
A senior Bush administration official told CNN that the White House would not agree to a summit until it sees initial steps taken by both sides # a Palestinian crackdown on militants and the lifting of Israeli economic restrictions.
Nevertheless, a Bush administration advance team left Sunday morning for Egypt to begin preparations for the possible summit, an administration official told CNN. The team is also set to go to Jordan, which Bush might visit early next month.