Sharon derides EU peace efforts

Ariel Sharon yesterday dismissed European peace efforts as anti-Israeli and said only the US matters in deciding the fate of the Palestinians.

The prime minister’s comments followed an interview with Newsweek magazine released yesterday in which he was asked about the efforts of the Quartet - the US, UN, EU and Russia - to map out a road to peace. “Oh, the quartet is nothing! Don’t take it seriously! There is [another] plan that will work,” he said.

Asked to outline the plan, Mr Sharon restated his position that Yasser Arafat had to be stripped of power, a prime minister should be appointed to head a Palestinian administration and there should be fundamental reform of security organisations.

Later, the prime minister’s office issued a clarification claiming that he did not mean to dismiss the Quartet’s efforts, only to say that Israel was closest to the US view of how peace should be brought about.

But at a press conference yesterday evening aimed as much at voters in next week’s general election as any foreign audience, Mr Sharon derided European peace proposals and said that the only member of the Quartet of relevance is the US.

“The [European] attitude towards Israel and the Arabs and Palestinians should be balanced. Once it’s balanced, you are welcome to participate,” he said.

“For instance, the US now says, and maybe the Russians also, that in order to move the peace process faster, Mr Arafat should be removed from the major decisions and a prime minister appointed in order to put a barrier between Mr Arafat, who can stay as a symbol if he wants, and the government.”

“[The Europeans] do not understand that in order to move things forward, Arafat should be removed from any influential position.”

European officials say they have been pressing for the appointment of a prime minister but argue that as long as Mr Arafat commands popular support among Palestinians he cannot simply be bypassed.

In a sarcastic aside, Mr Sharon said: “I feel an envy and jealousy that the Europeans and all those other countries have time to deal with our problems. I hope the time will come when things are peaceful enough here for me to dedicate time to helping the Europeans with their problems.”

The Israeli prime minister’s comments follow his recent confrontation with Tony Blair after Mr Sharon refused to allow Palestinian leaders to leave the West Bank to attend a London peace conference.

In yesterday’s comments, Mr Sharon overstated the extent to which the US and Israel are in agreement on the “road map” that envisages a Palestinian state within three years.

He laid out conditions - “an end to terror and violence”, dismantling “terrorist” groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and “complete cessation of incitement” - that he said the Americans had agreed were to be met before further steps could be taken towards the creation of a Palestinian state.

But the latest road map produced by the US does not require conditionality. Instead, Israel and the Palestinians would move in parallel, each implementing reforms.

American and European diplomats say Mr Sharon’s position would hold the whole process hostage to the killing of a single Israeli by any Palestinian group that opposed a settlement. Mr Sharon’s domestic critics say that is exactly what he wants.

The opposition Labour party leader, Amram Mitzna, said Mr Sharon’s comments revealed that he is not really interested in peace.

“Ariel Sharon is not ready to withdraw settlements, to separate from the Palestinians or to give up the illusion of Greater Israel,” he said.

The Palestinian information minister, Yassir Abd Rabbo, said Mr Sharon’s comments put the onus on the Americans to prove the Israelis wrong.

“The Americans cannot prove they are serious about a Palestinian state as long as they protect Sharon,” he said.

Mr Sharon said he was unconcerned at comments by the US deputy secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, reported yesterday, that after Iraq, Washington would focus on the Palestinian question and, in particular, settlements in the occupied territories. His comments were seen as significant in Jerusalem as he is one of the highest ranking Jewish members of the Bush administration and an unabashed supporter of Israel.