PRIME Minister Ariel Sharon was prepared to consider withdrawing from as much as 92 per cent of the West Bank, according to a leading Israeli journalist.
In an article published this week in The New Yorker magazine, Ari Shavit writes that Mr Sharon, who instigated the disengagement of Israeli settlements from Gaza last year, had asked his National Security Council to study four alternatives for the West Bank.
The options included withdrawing from 88 or 92 per cent of the territory, evacuating isolated settlements or evacuating a specific settlement region.
This is the first indication of the extent to which the now ailing leader had been prepared to pull back on the West Bank. He had given no public hint of readiness to vacate more than 40per cent of the territory captured in the 1967 Six Day War, although it was clear that in negotiations he would be prepared to go higher.
The 92 per cent figure is probably higher than most observers believed likely. It is not much lower than the amount former Labour prime minister Ehud Barak had offered Yasser Arafat in 2000, a figure variously given as 95 per cent or more.
Surrendering 92 per cent would still permit Israel to retain its major settlement blocs. The Palestinians demand a total withdrawal to the pre-Six Day War border or an equivalent land exchange. In the Gaza Strip, Mr Sharon had ordered total withdrawal.
Shavit, a reporter for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper with high-ranking sources, writes that Mr Sharon had been contemplating an interim agreement with the Palestinians involving the evacuation of about 20 isolated West Bank settlements.
Such a move would almost certainly spark a reprise of the clashes experienced during the Gaza Strip withdrawal last year between settlers and their supporters on one side against the Israeli army and police.
According to Shavit’s sources, Mr Sharon had come to terms with the creation of a Palestinian state but insisted that it be demilitarised and that it not control Israel’s water sources in the hills of the West Bank.
Despite the withdrawal alternatives he outlined to the National Security Council, Mr Sharon had not revealed even to associates where he saw the border being drawn. The associates told Shavit that by the end of the decade, Israel may have pulled back almost to the line delineated by the barrier presently being built parallel to, or on, the pre-1967 border.
Mr Sharon’s associates said he saw West Bank pullbacks leading to a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, although not necessarily to a permanent agreement.
The 77-year-old Prime Minister opened his eyes last night for the first time since his massive stroke on January 4, but aides said it was an involuntary action that did not mean his coma had ended. “It’s a reflex action,” one aide said. “You can tell that the pupils don’t follow anything.”
A senior physician not directly involved in the case said that if Mr Sharon did not show signs of consciousness by next week he could be defined as being in a vegetative state.