One of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's closest aides suggested in remarks published today that the Israeli government hopes to put Palestinian aspirations for statehood on hold indefinitely after withdrawing troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip next year.
The comments by Dov Weisglass, Sharon's main liaison with the Bush administration, seemed to contradict what is still Israel's official position supporting the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map," which envisions the two sides of the conflict engaging in negotiations that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state.
Weisglass, who until recently served as Sharon's chief of staff, told the daily newspaper Haaretz that a primary goal of the prime minister's plan to unilaterally relinquish the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005 "is the freezing of the peace process."
"It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political process with the Palestinians," the newspaper quoted him as saying. "When you freeze the process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state."
The remarks appeared to catch U.S. diplomats by surprise. After the interview was published, Sharon's office issued a terse statement reaffirming Israel's commitment to the road map.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman pointed to that as reflecting the American understanding of Israel's position, without commenting directly on what Weisglass had said.
Weisglass told Israel Radio that the excerpts published by Haaretz, which will run the full interview Friday, had truncated his remarks. The chief of staff insisted he had meant only that a return to negotiations is currently impossible due to "a Palestinian administration that has no control and no ability to prevent terror."
But Weisglass also suggested, as Sharon has done in recent weeks, that the road map — which calls for a series of reciprocal concessions by Israel and the Palestinians — is moribund.
"At the moment, the road map is a plan that exists on paper. It is a plan in theory, and is completely not upheld by the Palestinians," he said in the radio interview. "You can call this death, you can call it a deep coma or freeze. I won't compete with you in what to call it."
Israeli leftists, who have lent support to Sharon's Gaza pullout plan, reacted with dismay to the comments.
"We need a [peace] process, because even if we leave Gaza unilaterally and evacuate the settlements, problems with the Palestinians will continue," said Labor Party lawmaker Yuli Tamir. "The time has come for the prime minister to consider the long-term future."
Palestinians have generally welcomed the idea of an Israeli pullout from Gaza, but fear that it will set the stage for an Israeli annexation of large chunks of the West Bank. Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Weisglass had "revealed the true intention of Sharon," which he said was to undermine the road map.
Israeli political analysts said Weisglass' remarks — taken together with an ongoing Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 80 Palestinians — were likely intended to placate Sharon's rightist critics. In addition, they noted that the comments came as U.S. attention was diverted during the hard-fought American presidential race.
As the Israeli takeover of a densely populated swath of northern Gaza entered its second week, clashes flared anew in the Jabaliya refugee camp. At least three Palestinians were killed today, including a father and son who died when Israeli tanks fired shells toward the camp, and a 15-year-old boy who was shot dead as he stood on his balcony, according to Palestinian hospital officials.
In the northeast section of the camp, residents edged along a battle-damaged street, mindful of an Israeli tank a few hundred yards away. Those who lingered drew warning shouts from neighbors. As daylight faded, the air snapped with machine-gun fire and carried the pinging sound of bullets.
Those living in the camp said their daily routines had been severely curtailed by the fighting.
"It has paralyzed our life. There's no work, no school, nothing. We can't go out anywhere," said a 50-year-old man who gave his name as Abu Ala. He said he and his family had fled their home and were staying with relatives in a section of the camp less hard hit by the clashes.
The violence also spilled over into central Gaza, where three Palestinian gunmen infiltrated the isolated Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom and engaged in a firefight with Israeli troops. A Thai worker in one of the settlement greenhouses was killed, together with the three gunmen.
The radical group Hamas claimed responsibility for the settlement attack. Members of the group's military wing also held a defiant news conference inside Jabaliya, the second in recent days, and vowed that Israeli troops would "sink into a quagmire" if they pushed deeper into the camp.
There were growing signs that Israel might be preparing to wind down the offensive. Military officials say they have succeeded in limiting the ability of Palestinian militants to fire Kassam rockets at Israeli border towns, though they concede they have not been able to halt such attacks.
Israel has been facing growing international criticism over the operation, which has blanketed northern Gaza with more than 2,000 Israeli troops and some 200 armored vehicles. On Tuesday, a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the incursion was vetoed by the United States, which objected to the fact that the measure did not mention Kassam fire.
Israel launched the offensive after two Israeli children, ages 2 and 4, were killed by a rocket attack last week in the Negev desert town of Sderot.
Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in the Jabaliya refugee camp contributed to this report.