Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Israel defends its security fence after Bush's criticism

MIDEAST TURMOIL The vice premier asserted Israel's right to unilaterally keep Palestinians out of Israel after the US leader said such walls would prejudice peace talks

REUTERS , JERUSALEM

Israel responded defiantly yesterday to sharp criticism by US President George W. Bush of a barrier it is building through Palestinian areas in the West Bank.

Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said the barrier would remain an option even if a Middle East peace process resumed.

"Israel will always have the right to take unilateral steps for separation from the Palestinians through a fence or other means," Olmert told Israel Radio.

In a speech in London on Wednesday, Bush toughened his stance over the barrier, saying Israel must not prejudice final peace negotiations "with the placement of walls and fences."

Egyptian mediators in Gaza planned a second day of talks with Palestinian militants on a truce with Israel that could shore up a U.S.-backed peace "road map" stalled by violence.

In Italian newspaper interviews published yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he believes Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie "is a politician of great experience" who "intends to realize the road map."

"We need to see if [Palestinian President Yasser] Arafat lets him do it," Sharon, who returned yesterday from a three-day visit to Italy, told La Stampa and Corriere della Sera.

Sharon and Qurie are expected to meet next week for the first time since the new Palestinian government was installed on on Nov. 12.

After talks with Qurie and Egyptian mediators in Gaza on Wednesday, the main Palestinian militant factions said they had agreed in principle to talks in Cairo early next month on a truce with Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both committed to Israel's destruction, said Egypt had proposed talks on Dec. 2. Arafat's Fatah faction would also attend.

The mediators were to meet faction leaders again yesterday.

Israel's biggest newspaper reported Egypt has proposed an eight-step plan for a truce that would begin no later than Dec. 15 and lead to peace talks. An Islamic Jihad leader called the report "completely incorrect." There was no immediate Israeli comment.

Further diplomatic pressure on Israel came from the UN Security Council, which voted unanimously on Wednesday for a Russian-drafted resolution backing the road map. The peace plan lays out steps the two sides should take toward setting up a Palestinian state by 2005.

Israel had opposed the draft, wanting no UN role in peacemaking since it sees the world body as pro-Palestinian.

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