A senior aide to the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, said in an interview published Wednesday that Sharon's plan to withdraw troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip had "frozen" the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and guaranteed that Israel would never have to remove 80 percent of its settlers from the occupied West Bank, with the "blessing" of the U.S. government.
The aide, Dov Weisglass -- until recently Sharon's chief of staff, his personal attorney and still one of his closest advisers -- said the primary goals of the proposal to withdraw the 8,100 Jewish settlers from Gaza were to strengthen Israel's hold on its more numerous settlements in the West Bank and to freeze the political process as a way to indefinitely block the creation of a Palestinian state.
"What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns," Weisglass said in an interview with the daily Haaretz newspaper. Under that formula, he estimated that "out of 240,000 settlers [in the West Bank], 190,000 will not be moved from their place."
Weisglass, who has been Sharon's point man in talks with the Bush administration, said the U.S.-backed peace plan called the "road map" is dead. The plan calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state by the end of next year and is a cornerstone of President Bush's Middle East policy.
The disengagement plan "supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians," Weisglass said.
As a result, he said, "you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem."
Later in the day, Sharon's office issued a statement clarifying that the prime minister "supports the road map, which is the only plan that will enable progress towards a lasting political settlement. The blame for the current stalemate lies with the Palestinians, who are refusing to honor their commitments and who are continuing to cling to the path of terrorism, violence and incitement."
But Palestinians and Israelis from the country's peace camp swiftly attacked Weisglass's remarks, saying they proved that Sharon never intended the proposed Gaza withdrawal to lead to a wider peace or to be a stepping stone in the road map -- as both he and Bush have described it.
Weisglass's interview "confirmed what we feared: that this plan called the withdrawal from Gaza is really to deepen the [Israeli] occupation of the West Bank," said Ahmed Tibi, a prominent Israeli Arab member of Israel's parliament. Tibi said he had sent a letter to the U.S. ambassador, Dan Kurtzer, asking if the United States and specifically Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, one of Weisglass's main U.S. contacts, were a party to Sharon's "deceit."
Yossi Beilin, another member of parliament and one of Israel's foremost peace activists, said that after the Sharon government had said for years that progress toward peace was stalled because there was no partner on the Palestinian side, Weisglass's comments showed that it was Sharon who was not the partner for peace.
Beilin said the interview revealed that the Gaza disengagement plan "is not to test the success of such an experience, and then using that to go on and continue with a broader peace process, but is a way to prevent any step toward completing a peace agreement with the Palestinians."
In the interview, Weisglass contended that the United States fully supported not only the Gaza withdrawal plan but the resulting impediment to the creation of a Palestinian state. "Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda -- and all this with authority and permission," Weisglass said, "all with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress."
In Washington, a spokesman for the State Department, J. Adam Ereli, said the publication of Weisglass's comments prompted contact between the U.S. Embassy and Israeli officials in which "we certainly made it clear that they didn't coincide with what we thought the position of the government of Israel was."
But Ereli said the statement by Sharon's office reassured the Bush administration that "Israel is committed to the road map and the president's two-state vision. . . . Based on that statement and based on Israel's declared policy, we see no cause to doubt it."
The report on Weisglass's remarks came as fighting continued in the Gaza Strip on the eighth day of an Israeli offensive to stop Palestinian militants from firing homemade Qassam rockets and mortars at Jewish settlements and other Israeli targets. The invasion was launched after a Palestinian rocket killed two small Israeli children in the town of Sderot, just outside the strip.
Seven Palestinians and one Thai laborer at a Jewish settlement were killed or died overnight and on Wednesday in Gaza. That brings the Palestinian death toll in Gaza since Sept. 28 to at least 90, according to recent press accounts and the Palestinian Health Ministry, which has compiled a list of all those killed in Gaza since the start of the operation. The number of Israelis killed in conflict over the course of the entire year is 91, according to figures compiled by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Magen David Adom emergency rescue service.
As of Tuesday, according to the ministry, 25 of the Palestinians killed and 138 of the 320 wounded were younger than 18.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.