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Palestinians reject Bush remarks on independence

Say new state possible by '05

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian leaders said yesterday that hope remains for creating a Palestinian state by next year if the United States is willing to push for serious peace talks.

The comments were made after President Bush suggested that the "road map" peace plan's call for an independent Palestinian state in 2005 was unrealistic.

Also yesterday, Justice Minister Tommy Lapid of Israel threatened to pull his moderate Shinui Party out of the government if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is unable to implement his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

In an interview published in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Bush said ongoing violence had pushed back the road map's schedule for Palestinian statehood. "I think the timetable of 2005 isn't as realistic as it was two years ago," he said, according to a White House transcript of the interview released Friday.

Bush's comment angered Palestinian officials, who said a state could be formed according to schedule. "It is realistic and more," Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told reporters outside his compound in Ramallah.

The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, called on Bush to reconsider his statement. "We have plenty of time to seriously negotiate, if the American administration indeed wants serious negotiations and wants to reach a final agreement," he said.

"There is no longer an opportunity to delay this matter. Wasting time is not in the interest of the peace process and stability in the region."

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have stalled amid the continuing violence and both sides' refusals to fulfill their initial obligations under the road map. Israel has yet to pull down scores of unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank, and the Palestinians have said they will not dismantle militant groups for fear of provoking a civil war.

Yesterday, the Islamic Jihad group condemned the Palestinian Authority for arresting two of its militants -- a would-be suicide bomber and his recruiter -- and called on its members to open fire at Palestinian security officers who come to arrest them.

In a statement distributed in mosques in the West Bank town of Jenin, the group accused Palestinian security officials of trying to curry favor with Israeli intelligence agents for personal gain.

With the road map stalled, Sharon had proposed a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank. His "disengagement" plan was defeated in a nonbinding referendum of members of his Likud Party.

Hard-liners in Sharon's government said the defeat signaled the end of the plan, but Lapid demanded yesterday that it be presented to the Cabinet with only minimal changes. The Cabinet was expected to discuss the plan at its weekly meeting today.

"We are not ready to abandon the program," Lapid said. "If there is no progress we will have to consider leaving" the government.

The withdrawal of Shinui, the second-largest member of Sharon's coalition, could bring down the government, although the prime minister probably would replace it with ultra-Orthodox parties, which strongly oppose Sharon's proposal.

Sharon said he is committed to his plan to pull out of all 21 Gaza settlements and four others in the northern West Bank.

"We must find a way to implement the disengagement plan because of its importance for the future of Israel," he said Friday.

Meanwhile, six people were hurt in an explosion from a gas buildup under a produce shop in Arab East Jerusalem, police said. Three Palestinians were taken to a hospital with moderate to serious wounds and three others were lightly hurt in the explosion, which ripped through two stores near the walled Old City. Police sappers called to the scene concluded the blast was not caused by explosives, but from the ignition of gases that built up under the shop, a police spokesman said.

Material from Reuters was included in this report.

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