Hinting at a shift in position, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet he is ready to take unilateral steps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and officials told Israeli media this may include the evacuation of some settlers.
Critics dismissed the leaks as a public relations stunt by Sharon, who is under growing criticism at home for his failure to end the conflict with the Palestinians. The prime minister has pushed for the expansion of settlements throughout his career.
In another development, Israel expelled three Palestinians from the West Bank to Gaza late Sunday. In all, six of 18 on a list drawn up by the military have been expelled in recent weeks. Israel says the expulsions are meant to stop the Palestinians from carrying out terror attacks. Palestinians and human rights groups have denounced the practice as a violation of international law.
Israeli media on Sunday reported details of Sharon's proposals, but he told his Cabinet only that he would not rule out unilateral steps, pledging to bring any new moves to the Cabinet for approval.
The George W. Bush administration, up to now supportive of Sharon's harsh military measures against the Palestinians, has been increasingly critical of Israeli restrictions against the Palestinian population and the construction of a barrier in the West Bank.
Israel says the barrier is meant to keep Palestinian militants out, but upcoming sections would dip deep into the West Bank, prompting Palestinian accusations of a land grab.
Last week, Elliot Abrams, head of the Middle East desk at the US National Security Council, met secretly with Sharon while the he was in Italy, an Israeli official confirmed yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Abrams told Sharon he must dismantle illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank and freeze settlement construction, Israeli media reported yesterday.
Abrams also warned that money spend on the barrier will be deducted from US loan guarantees to Israel, the reports said.
Sharon responded by telling Abrams he intends to take unilateral steps in the West Bank and Gaza, media reports said.
On Sunday, Sharon told his Cabinet he remains committed to the US-backed "road map" plan, which envisions Palestinian statehood by 2005 as a centerpiece of a negotiated peace settlement.
Under the Sharon plan reported Sunday, Israel would draw its own border if peace efforts bog down, and the frontier would run along the West Bank barrier currently under construction.
Sharon reportedly told the ministers Sunday he would consider rerouting upcoming segments, which as currently planned would cut deep into the West Bank in some areas, and bring them closer to Israel.
Israel would also uproot smaller settlements, and residents would be moved to the Negev Desert or to larger settlement blocs in the West Bank, according to the reported plan. Israel would withdraw from Palestinian towns and release some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners it holds.
Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot daily he would present his new plan soon.
"I just wanted the Israeli public to know that its prime minister has not stopped thinking about how to get out of the impasse with the Palestinians," he told the paper.
The reports sparked conflicting reactions from Cabinet ministers. Effi Eitam of the National Union dismissed the reported plans as "complete folly" -- while Yosef Paritzky of the Shinui party said his group would "demand concrete steps to jump-start and advance the diplomatic process."