Image: Palestinian sits next to Israeli separation barrier.
Kevin Frayer  /  AP file
A Palestinian shopkeeper sits next to a section of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank town of Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on Tuesday.
updated 7/13/2004 4:14:04 PM ET 2004-07-13T20:14:04

Cartographers have begun moving the planned route of the West Bank separation barrier closer to Israel, in line with an Israeli court ruling that the government must reduce hardships for the Palestinians, officials said Tuesday.

Later this week, planners will present three different options for a new route to the Defense Ministry for approval, security officials said on condition of anonymity. All three routes are significantly closer to Israel than the original path.

Also Tuesday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made overtures to two religious parties to join his shaky coalition, a day after he made a similar offer to the moderate Labor Party, political sources said. In courting religious parties, Sharon apparently was trying to defuse opposition in his Likud Party to bringing in Labor.

The West Bank barrier is to run for 425 miles. One-fourth has already been built. The changes will be made mainly in the section still in the planning stages.

Security officials said Tuesday that the planners’ decisions were based on the criteria established by Israel’s Supreme Court in a ruling last month, and that last week’s world court decision on the barrier was not a factor.

Israel’s high court said the barrier could be built to keep out Palestinian attackers, but that the route caused too much hardship for Palestinians. The world court said in an advisory ruling that the barrier is illegal and must be dismantled.

While the old route was defined purely by security considerations, the new one would try to find a balance between Israel’s security needs and Palestinian rights, a defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In redrawing the map, planners were asked not to run the barrier next to Palestinian villages and not to separate Palestinians from their fields and schools, the official said.

As a result, the barrier would run much closer to Israel and more Israeli settlements would end up on the “Palestinian” side than originally planned. The biggest route changes are expected between the Jewish settlement of Elkana and Jerusalem, and in the southern West Bank.

Israel says it needs the divider to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen who have killed hundreds of Israelis. The Palestinians say they have no problem with Israel building the barrier on its territory, but that the planned route, which at times dips deep into the West Bank, amounts to a land grab.

Some settlements outside route
In Israeli politics, the Labor Party was to approve the opening of formal coalition negotiations Tuesday, following a meeting between Sharon and Labor leader Shimon Peres on Monday. A Likud-Labor alliance would strongly boost chances of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, planned for 2005.

Hardliners in Likud oppose bringing in Labor and withdrawing from Gaza. However, Sharon warned Likud legislators on Monday that the alternative is an election, which could paralyze Mideast diplomatic efforts for months.

Sharon lost his parliamentary majority over the proposed Gaza withdrawal, and is trying to broaden his coalition in order to push ahead with his plan.

Sharon and Labor teamed for more than a year, but Labor quit over Sharon’s increased funding for Jewish settlements, forcing an election in January 2003. Now Sharon is trying to woo Labor back after accepting one of its main precepts — pulling out of Gaza.

According to a government timetable, Sharon plans to withdraw from all of Gaza, where 7,500 Jewish settlers live among 1.3 million Palestinians, and uproot four isolated settlements in the West Bank by the end of September 2005.

Non-Labor options
Sharon also approached two ultra-Orthodox parties about coalition possibilities, political sources said. If they join, however, it would lead to a full-scale Cabinet shake up, as Sharon’s main current partner, the secular Shinui, would leave.

Senior Likud ministers fear for their jobs, particularly Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who could lose his post to Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who headed the Foreign Ministry from 2000-2002 under Sharon.

Shalom told Likud’s parliamentary faction he strongly opposes bringing Labor into the coalition. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ex-premier who wants his old job back, has expressed concern that Labor would hamper his economic reforms.

At least 17 of Likud’s 40 Parliament members have signed a statement opposed to Labor’s joining, and more names were expected, according to Cabinet minister Uzi Landau, leader of the hardline Likud rebels.

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