Sharon demands Palestinians move on militants

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, giving no ground on the heels of Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, demanded in a policy speech on Monday the Palestinian Authority "wage a real war on terror" before peace talks can resume.

He reaffirmed his bedrock position after postponing a showdown with far-right members of his own Likud party still fuming over the pullout and threatening to derail new cabinet appointments.

In the first test of his parliamentary strength since the Gaza withdrawal last month, Sharon easily survived a string of parliamentary non-confidence motions and saw lawmakers endorse his "state of the nation" address.

"The demand for the Palestinians to wage a real war on terror cannot be circumvented," Sharon said at the opening of a new Knesset session after a week in which bloodshed surged.

"The international community is united in its demand the Palestinian Authority carry out all its commitments, primarily the disarming of terrorist organizations and preventing attacks against Israel," he said.

Such action, Sharon said, was "the only way to get back on the route of negotiations" under a U.S.-backed peace "road map" that calls for a crackdown on militants as a condition for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

The Palestinians put the onus on Israel, citing Israel’s failure to freeze expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, another requirement of the road map.

"At the end of the day, it is either settlements or peace, and it seems to me that this government is pursuing settlements and dictation, and not peace and negotiations," Palestinian negotiations minister Saeb Erekat told Reuters.

Abbas fears civil war

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who along with Sharon declared a ceasefire in February, has urged militants not to carry their weapons in public but has resisted US and Israeli calls to disarm them, citing fears of civil war.

While reaffirming Israel’s commitment to the road map, Sharon has made clear he has no intention of giving up major settlement blocs in the West Bank, which house many times more settlers than those in the Gaza Strip.

Shortly before the speech, Sharon said he would delay for a week a parliamentary vote to approve the nomination of Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as finance minister and cabinet posts for two other political allies who supported the Gaza pullout.

Likud members who opposed the withdrawal, saying it would encourage Palestinian attacks, had threatened to vote against the nominations in parliament on Monday, potentially embarrassing Sharon or even pushing him toward early elections.

In violence on Sunday, Israeli troops killed three Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank, the army said, hours after the organization agreed to halt rocket attacks from Gaza, which Israel quit last month after 38 years of military rule.

Islamic Jihad killed five Israelis in a suicide bombing last Wednesday and its rocket attacks provoked Israeli airstrikes that killed nine Palestinians, mostly gunmen. Islamic Jihad said it reserved the right to avenge the latest killings.

Sharon told parliament that Israel also faced regional threats, citing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remark on Wednesday that Israel should be "wiped off the map".

Ahmadinejed’s comments, which drew international condemnation, "expressed what many in the region desire but are afraid to say publicly", Sharon said.

(additional reporting by Dan Williams and Matt Spetalnick in Jerusalem and Wael al-Ahmed in Jenin)

- REUTERS

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