JERUSALEM In a new hint of momentum to break the stalemate with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his moderate foreign minister, Shimon Peres, are holding discussions on a new peace plan, officials said Tuesday.
The initiative came amid new violence Tuesday: Palestinian gunmen ambushed an Israeli military jeep at an army outpost south of the West Bank town of Nablus, and three Palestinians were killed and an Israeli soldier was critically wounded, the army said.
The 40-minute clash took place on a bypass road south of the Palestinian village of Tell, village residents said. They said that a child was injured by a ricocheting bullet.
In a bid to end 14 months of violence, Sharon and Peres have met once and plan another session Friday to discuss the new peace initiative, Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said Tuesday.
"We are examining whether it is possible to bring our positions closer," Peres told Israel Radio.
Peres acknowledged last week that he was working on a new peace plan. Israeli news reports said at the time it called for a Palestinian state and the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, where about 7,000 Israelis live amid more than a million Palestinians.
Sharon has not said he would dismantle any of the nearly 150 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip where some 200,000 Israelis live and in the past he has been one of the key patrons of the Jewish settler movement.
Gissin said Tuesday the latest version of the plan as he understood it didn't include the issue of dismantling settlements, because it was something to be decided later during negotiations on a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The Israeli daily Haaretz on Tuesday said the plan included: a demilitarized Palestinian state in Gaza first; negotiations on its borders in the West Bank; maintaining the status quo in Jerusalem; "compensation" but no "right of return" to Israel for millions of Palestinian war refugees and descendants.
The plan appeared to be an interim arrangement that would not demand an "end of conflict" declaration from the Palestinians something former premier Ehud Barak had insisted on in exchange for his more far-reaching offers which were themselves rejected by the Palestinians last year.
Peres refused to discuss details Tuesday. "My plan is still being shaped," he told Israel Army Radio. "I also am trying to confer, to see if I can find something in common with the prime minister. We'll see. I don't want to hurry. I'd rather get to a national decision and a real plan."
The developments came after another meeting between Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat their third in four days. The two met for 90 minutes in Brussels on the sidelines of a European Union meeting late Monday, hosted by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
It also came amid differing reports within the Palestinian Authority over the possible declaration of a Palestinian state.
Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Quriea told The Associated Press last week that the Palestinians should declare an independent state immediately, and that the United Nations General Assembly would be the right occasion to do so.
On Tuesday, the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat reported that Arafat was considering making the declaration at the General Assembly's annual debate, which starts over the weekend.
The Palestinian information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said the Al Hayat report was false.
President Bush has publicly endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state; Sharon has been saying he now supported in principle the establishment of such a state as well but he has avoided any specifics on the difficult issues of settlements and borders.
Abed Rabbo said the Israeli reports of a plan were merely an effort by the Israelis to "sabotage" any more far-reaching American initiative that might come forward.
"This plan is worse than the occupation," he told the AP. "It's an attempt to keep Jerusalem under occupation and to cancel the rights of the Palestinian refugees and to separate the West Bank into several cantons."
Sharon is under increasing pressure from the United States and from within Peres' Labor Party to resume negotiations with Arafat to end 14 months of fighting that have killed 744 people on the Palestinian side and 194 on the Israeli side.
He warned Tuesday that there would be more deaths before peace, in an appearance at a religious school that had been attended by 16-year-old Shoshana Ben-Yishai, killed by a Palestinian militant on her way home from school Sunday.
"I would very much like to share your hope, that there won't be any more dead," Sharon said. "But I definitely won't say there won't be more dead. This is a hard battle."
He promised that Israeli forces would continue to act to protect Israelis, and denied pressure was mounting on him to back down.
His comments came a day after Israel pulled its tanks from the West Bank town of Qalqilya, entered nearly three weeks ago after Palestinian gunmen assassinated a Cabinet minister Oct. 17.
Israel has come under stern U.S. and international pressure to withdraw from the towns.
Gissin said Israel planned to pull out from areas of the remaining three towns Ramallah, Jenin and Tulkarem.
But he said the pullout from Jenin had been delayed after a bomb exploded in a makeshift cafeteria at a factory in the Shaked settlement nearby Monday, injuring three people. The militant Islamic Jihad took responsibility.
Gissin said Israeli forces might next pull out of Ramallah, the West Bank center of Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
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