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Sharon demands 'right of return' be dropped from plan

By Associated Press,
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 7, 2003

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threw a U.S.-backed peace plan into doubt Tuesday, saying Palestinians must drop their demand for Arab refugees' "right of return" to Israel if negotiations are to proceed.

Israel always has objected to the right of return for 4-million Arabs who fled the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948, but never made renouncing the demand a condition for peace talks.

The new Mideast plan unveiled by Washington last week says the fate of the refugees will be negotiated in the third and final stage of the so-called "road map." The right of return is a cornerstone of Palestinian policy.

But Sharon told Israel Radio the renunciation by Palestinians "is something Israel insists on and sees it as a condition for continuing the process." The interview marked Israel's Independence Day celebrations.

Israeli officials said the renunciation would have to come before creation of a provisional Palestinian state in the second of the plan's three phases.

The Palestinians have accepted the road map, which seeks to end 31 months of bloody Mideast violence and lead to a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Arab conflict.

Israel refuses to take blame for the consequences of the two-year war after its creation, when Arab armies invaded the nascent Jewish state and about 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.

Sharon called the right of return "a recipe for the destruction of Israel," because it would flood Israel with Arabs. Statistics released on the eve of Independence Day showed there are 5.4-million Jews and 1.3-million Arabs in Israel.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said Sharon is stalling and trying to kill the plan.

"I think the end game here of Mr. Sharon is trying to extend the time until the American election in order to avoid implementation of any the provisions of the road map," Erekat said.

Meanwhile, Knight Ridder Newspapers reported Palestinian government officials are secretly negotiating with militant groups in a bid to end terror attacks against Israelis and appeared Tuesday to have reached a two-year cease-fire agreement with Hamas.

The accord, if it held, would hand the week-old Palestinian government its first victory in its bid to restart peace talks after 31 months of violent confrontation.

Aides to two high-ranking Palestinian government leaders told Knight Ridder Hamas had agreed to a cease-fire, but a Hamas official declined to confirm it.

Israeli observers said a cease-fire could clear the way for an initial breakthrough in the first security talks in nearly a year.

- Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.

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