ARIEL – The time has come to look into expanding the West Bank settlement of Ariel and its vicinity, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday, several hours before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to arrive in Israel.
Notably, Sharon's latest comments contradict official American policy, which opposes any settlement expansion.
"I came to check how we can expand the town and the entire (settlement) bloc, as I'm doing in other blocs," the prime minister said during a tour of Ariel. "This bloc will forever be an inseparable part of the State of Israel and enjoy a contiguous territorial connection to it."
"We haven't managed to realize the entire dream, but what we did succeed in doing is of the utmost important," he said, referring to the settlement enterprise.
Sharon's message reiterates previous statements he has made, but the timing of the remarks could be problematic, with the soon-to-arrive Rice possibly interpreting Sharon's words as a provocation.
Following the tour, the prime minister met with local officials. Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman told Sharon "our vision regarding the Land of Israel has shattered, and today we need new hope to collect the pieces."
Sharon, meanwhile, reminded those in attendance of his direct involvement in Ariel's establishment.
"I haven't been here for a long time to my regret, but I did have the privilege of starting the first excavations here with you," he said.
Rice to press Abbas?
Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice has hinted ahead of her visit that she will demand that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas act on his declarations to disarm armed groups not under the Palestinian Authority's control.
Rice also demanded that Arab states exercise their influence on the Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have been attempting to undermine the relative lull in violence.
In an interview to the BBC, Rice said she would push Abbas to realize his vision of one authority and one armed force.
The Palestinian leader must be strong and determined, and tell the Palestinians he would not allow opponents to ruin the current hope for progress, she said.