Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Terrorism and not settlements is the issue topping the Israeli-Palestinian agenda as far as Israel is concerned, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman said on Tuesday.
Sharon stated in an interview with an Israeli newspaper that the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not "on the horizon right now."
The prime minister also said that Jews would continue to live in Beit El and Shilo - two settlements with historic links to the Jewish people - under Israeli sovereignty.
He had made comments about those two communities a month ago in reference to "painful concessions," leading some to believe he would relinquish them as part of a settlement with the Palestinians. But his comments in the interview in Tuesday's Jerusalem Post corrected that assumption.
Sharon's remarks come a week before he is due to meet with President George Bush in Washington to discuss the U.S.-sponsored "road map" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establish a Palestinian state.
The road map calls on Israel in the first phase to freeze settlement activity and remove illegal outposts - established during the past few years - in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said this week after meeting with Sharon in Jerusalem that settlements were one of the most difficult issues to be dealt with and that Bush would speak to Sharon in "very open, straightforward, honest and candid terms" about the settlements.
The U.S. views the settlements as an "obstacle to peace" and sees establishing them as a unilateral action, which the U.S. is against by either side, an American official said here on Tuesday.
The Palestinians want Israel to evacuate the settlements, where more than 200,000 Israelis live, because they say the settlements break up the continuity of the land they hope will become a future Palestinian state.
New Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas listed ending settlement activity as one of the issues in which he is interested following his meeting with Powell.
But Sharon spokesman Dr. Ra'anan Gissin said on Tuesday that the settlements were "not an issue" now because the important thing is "to bring about an end of violence, terrorism, incitement."
When that has been accomplished, then the Israelis and Palestinians can move on to the next stage, where they will talk about a freeze on settlements and the dismantling of outposts, Gissin said in a telephone interview.
Gissin said that Sharon had referred to Beit El and Shilo because they were the "cradle of the Jewish people" and held special historical, religious, national and emotional ties and compared losing them to someone asking the U.S. to give up Mt. Rushmore or the Grand Canyon.
The West Bank and Gaza Strip - known to Jewish people by the Biblical names of Judea, Samaria and Gaza - contain many places mentioned in the Bible that they believe God promised to give to the Jewish people as an eternal inheritance.
But Gissin said that despite the sensitive subject, he is not expecting any pressure on Sharon from Washington next week.
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