Sat, Jul 31, 2004 - Page 6 News List

US supports `deterrent,' Sharon says

NUCLEAR WEAPONS Israel has always practiced ambiguity regarding its nuclear arsenal. Sharon has now come extremely close to admitting what exists

AP , JERUSALEM

Israel has US backing for its deterrent weapons, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in an oblique reference to his country's secret nuclear arms.

He also claimed US support for key elements of Israel's policy toward the Palestinians.

In Gaza before daybreak yesterday, meanwhile, Israeli troops moved to the outskirts of Beit Lahiya, a town near the northern edge of the territory, residents said. Israeli forces have held neighboring Beit Hanoun for a month, trying to prevent militants from firing rockets at Israeli towns just outside Gaza.

Despite the ongoing operation, Palestinian militants yesterday fired two Qassam rockets from the northern Gaza Strip into Israel but caused no injuries, the army said.

Speaking at a political party gathering in Tel Aviv on Thursday, Sharon said the US backs Israel in keeping control of main West Bank settlements, drawing secure borders that include parts of the West Bank in Israel and banning Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes in Israel.

Hinting at nuclear weapons, Sharon said the US recognizes that "Israel faces an existential threat, and it must be able to defend itself by itself by preserving its deterrent capability."

iran

Sharon noted that Iran is under US pressure to stop its nuclear weapons program, and Libya took steps to halt its nuclear arms development, but "we have received here a clear American position that says in other words that Israel must not be touched when it comes to its deterrent capability."

Israel has never admitted possessing nuclear weapons, maintaining a policy of ambiguity. However, based on pictures and information given to the Sunday Times in 1987 by whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, experts have concluded that Israel has perhaps hundreds of nuclear bombs.

Sharon said the US backs "Israel's right to defend itself by itself against threats at any place and to preserve Israel's deterrent power against all threats."

In Washington, a State Department official would say only that the US supports Israel's right of self-defense.

us reluctance

Critics of Israeli and US policy have questioned why the US has pressed Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons, when Israel faces no similar pressure. Most of the international community -- led by Arab states -- has pushed Israel to reveal its nuclear capabilities, despite the US reluctance to do push Israel on the issue.

In his address to party activists, Sharon defended his "unilateral disengagement" plan, including evacuation of Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip. The party voted overwhelmingly against the plan on April 2.

Sharon said the plan "is the most important for Israel at this time. It would be irresponsible for me to back away from it now."

He said that with the plan, he gained US support for the main elements of Israeli policy.

"The US position is that the large settlement blocs would remain under Israeli control, and the rest of the West Bank would be open to negotiations," he said.

no return

Also, he said, the US backs the Israeli position that "there will be no return of any [Palestinian] refugees to the state of Israel. We have never got that before in 56 years of Israel's existence."

Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and Gaza for a state, demanding that all 150 Jewish settlements there be dismantled.

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