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Sharon, seeing win, lays out an agenda

Hopes for accord with Palestinians; isn't eager on Syria

TEL AVIV -- Voicing confidence of an election victory, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that he will make ''every effort" to reach an accord with Palestinians, but that he is in no rush to negotiate with Syria.

Laying out his agenda, Sharon also said that the international community has military options to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program, but that diplomacy should remain the first line of defense.

Sharon appeared relaxed in a question-and-answer session with Israeli news editors, but did not give specifics on on policy details. He has said his main goal in leaving the Likud party and forming a centrist movement, Kadima, was to make progress toward an agreement with the Palestinians.

Polls have shown his new party coming out on top in March 28 elections, and able to hook up with the Labor party to form a stable coalition. ''I will win these elections," Sharon said.

Sharon said he would ''make every effort to advance the peace process," repeating his commitment to the US ''road map," which envisions a cessation of violence and a Palestinian state.

However, he said that Israel will keep large Jewish West Bank settlements in any peace deal and suggested that Israel would not yet be prepared to give up the West Bank's Jordan Valley, calling it a ''security zone."

He added that he does ''not foresee" additional pullbacks following last summer's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He said that settlement construction is continuing, and that he will not encourage Israeli settlers living on the ''Palestinian" side of Israel's West Bank separation barrier to move back to Israel.

Government statistics released yesterday said the Jewish settler population in the West Bank is expected to grow this year by 4.3 percent -- faster than in any other Israeli district. The 243,000 settlers live among more than 2 million Palestinians in territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.

There has been speculation that a coalition led by Sharon would impose a peace agreement in the event of a deadlock in negotiations with the Palestinians, and that Israeli troops and settlers would withdraw to the West Bank separation barrier, which would then become Israel's de facto border with the Palestinians.

A Sharon ally, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, acknowledged that the barrier is far more than a means to keep out Palestinian militants.

''One does not have to be a genius to see that the fence will have implications for the future border," Livni said at a legal conference this week, according to her spokesman, Shai Ben-Mor. ''This is not the reason it was built, but it could have political implications."

The Palestinians have long complained that Israel is drawing a border by building the barrier and thus preempting the outcome of negotiations. If the barrier became the border, Israel would annex 8 percent of the West Bank and keep east Jerusalem, the sector of the city the Palestinians seek as a future capital.

A Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said yesterday that Sharon is trying to impose a deal. ''I think he wants to make peace with himself and his voters," Erekat said.

Also yesterday, the military said it had arrested Awad Rajoub, a reporter for the Al-Jazeera satellite station in Hebron. Rajoubwas detained Wednesday for security reasons, the military said.

Sharon, meanwhile, said he is in no rush to resume peace talks with Syria, which broke off in 2000. Restarting such negotiations would only ease US and French pressure on the Syrian regime, he said.

''In my opinion, Israel should not surrender the Golan Heights," he added, referring to the plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981.

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