Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said today that Europe was too biased against Israel to be a Middle East mediator. A top aide said the prime minister did not consider a U.S.-backed plan for Palestinian statehood to be realistic.
Sharon has repeatedly promised to seek peace and make "painful concessions" if reelected on Jan. 28, but opponents said his latest positions show he has no vision for ending the 28 months of deadly violence.
The emerging plan, known as the "road map," was formulated in recent weeks by the so-called Quartet of mediators -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. It does not explicitly call for a change in the Palestinian leadership, as President Bush did in a speech last June in which he outlined a vision for a Palestinian state by 2005.
However, the United States has not distanced itself from the road map, and it is to be formally adopted next month.
At a news conference, Sharon did not directly address the road map, saying only that he sees "eye to eye" with the United States. "To the European side I said, 'Your attitude towards Israel and the Arabs and the Palestinians should be balanced,' " Sharon said. "When it will be balanced you are mostly welcome to participate. But at this moment the relations are unbalanced. . . . They [the Europeans] don't understand that in order to move things forward [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat should be removed from any influential position."
The latest draft of the road map calls for an eventual freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- something Sharon will find very difficult to do if, as expected, he emerges as the leader of a narrow right-wing government after the election. The moderate Labor Party has said it will not join Sharon's government again.
When asked about the road map in a weekend interview with Newsweek, Sharon was quoted as saying: "Oh, the Quartet is nothing! Don't take it seriously! There is [another] plan that will work."
He said that if Arafat were removed and Palestinian militants crushed, Israel would recognize a provisional, demilitarized Palestinian state with temporary borders, and after prolonged calm, enter negotiations on a final peace deal.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said Sharon believes the Quartet's plan is "not realistic. . . . There is nothing in that program that can be implemented."
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat accused Sharon of sabotaging efforts to revive peace talks. Sharon's plan has no chance of success, Erekat said, and "his real intention is to . . . make it impossible for any future negotiators to discuss peace."
In Tel Aviv, meanwhile, an Israeli court ruled that it can try Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian uprising, rejecting defense claims that it has no jurisdiction. The trial will begin April 6, and the judges appointed a public defender for Barghouti, who has refused legal representation. Barghouti, the West Bank leader of Arafat's Fatah movement, will be tried for involvement in Palestinian terror attacks that took the lives of 26 Israelis. Barghouti maintains he is not involved in violence.