The Guardian reports on the front page (also see the Financial Times):
A confidential Foreign Office document accuses Israel of rushing to annex the Arab area of Jerusalem, using illegal Jewish settlement construction and the vast West Bank barrier, in a move to prevent it becoming a Palestinian capital.
In an unusually frank insight into British assessments of Israeli intentions, the document says that Ariel Sharon's government is jeopardising the prospect of a peace agreement by trying to put the future of Arab East Jerusalem beyond negotiation and risks driving Palestinians living in the city into radical groups. The document, obtained by the Guardian, was presented to an EU council of ministers meeting chaired by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, on Monday with recommendations to counter the Israeli policy, including recognition of Palestinian political activities in East Jerusalem.
But the council put the issue on hold until next month under pressure from Italy, according to sources, which Israel considers its most reliable EU ally.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has drafted a plan for Israel's withdrawal from virtually all of the West Bank by 2008.
Political sources said Sharon has begun briefing senior U.S. officials of his intention to withdraw unilaterally from more than 95 percent of the West Bank. They said Sharon, who quit the ruling Likud Party on Nov. 21, would seek a U.S. and international security presence in the area as well as a commitment for the dismantling of Palestinian insurgency groups.
On Wednesday, Haim Ramon, a Cabinet minister who joined Sharon's new party, said the prime minister plans to withdraw unilaterally to what would constitute Israel's final borders, Middle East Newsline reported. Ramon said Sharon does not plan to discuss this before the parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 28.
"His decision [to quit the Likud] stems from his desire to bring the state of Israel to permanent borders during his term of office," Eli Landau, a longtime confidante of Sharon, said. "He knows that this step will be a dramatic one."
The sources said Sharon's plan was based on an assessment that the Palestinian Authority was not prepared to sign a formal peace agreement with Israel. They said that under this scenario Sharon would order a unilateral withdrawal from more than 90 percent of the West Bank, but retain control over air space.
The pullout would be accompanied by a pledge from Sharon of an additional pullout and full Palestinian independence should the PA dismantle insurgency groups and maintain security cooperation with Israel. The sources said a version of the plan has already been drafted by Israel's National Security Council.
To return to the subject of East Jerusalem, it should also be noted that the Muslim claim to Jerusalem may be more tenuous than generally believed, and apparently the Palestinians living there are, at best, ambiguous about PA control over it:
In the Palestinian Authority's (PA) elections that took place in January 2005, a significant percentage of Arab Jerusalemites stayed away from the polls out of concern that voting in them might jeopardize their status as residents of Israel. For example, the Associated Press quoted one Rabi Mimi, a 28-year-old truck driver, who expressed strong support for Mahmoud Abbas but said he had no plans to vote: "I can't vote. I'm afraid I'll get into trouble. I don't want to take any chances." Asked if he would vote, a taxi driver responded with indignation, "Are you kidding? To bring a corrupt [Palestinian] Authority here. This is just what we are missing."
This reluctance—as well as administrative incompetence—helped explain why, in the words of the Jerusalem Post, "at several balloting locations in the city [of Jerusalem], there were more foreign election observers, journalists, and police forces out than voters." It also explains why, in the previous PA election in 1996, a mere 10 percent of Jerusalem's eligible population voted, far lower than the proportions elsewhere.
At first blush surprising, the worry about jeopardizing Israeli residency turns out to be widespread among the Palestinians in Israel. When given a choice of living under Zionist or Palestinian rule, they decidedly prefer the former. More than that, there is a body of pro-Israel sentiments from which to draw. No opinion surveys cover this delicate subject, but a substantial record of statements and actions suggest that, despite their anti-Zionist swagger, Israel's most fervid enemies do perceive its political virtues. Even Palestinian leaders, between their fulminations, sometimes let down their guard and acknowledge Israel's virtues. This undercurrent of Palestinian love of Zion has hopeful and potentially significant implications.