Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared Sunday that among would-be mediators of the Mideast conflict, only the United States sees "eye to eye" with Israel -- an assertion that is potentially awkward for the Bush administration in the run-up to a possible war with Iraq.
Sharon's slap at the other parties in the so-called quartet of mediators -- the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- came nine days before Israel's elections, in which the prime minister's conservative Likud Party is expected to emerge triumphant. The mediators have drafted what they call a road map to eventual Palestinian statehood, but the Bush administration delayed the plan's formal release until after the election.
Pressed by European journalists for an assessment of the European role, the prime minister said, "Your attitude toward Israel and the Arabs and the Palestinians should be balanced.... But at this moment, the relations are unbalanced."
European leaders, he said, "don't understand that in order to move things forward, [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat should be removed from any position of influence."
Sharon's comments came after he was quoted by Newsweek magazine as dismissing the "road map" by saying, "Oh, the quartet is nothing. Don't take it seriously."
The prime minister's office said Sunday that the remarks were taken out of context but did not deny that Sharon made them. It then issued a statement saying that "in the quartet forum ... Israel and the United States see eye to eye."
While Israel's preference for the United States as a mediator is hardly a secret, the Bush administration has deliberately chosen in recent months to work with other parties so as not to be seen as standing alone in demanding concessions from the Palestinians while it is preparing for war with Iraq.
U.S. diplomats in Israel had no comment on Sharon's remarks.
The United States has pressed Israel to avoid actions and statements that would inflame passions in the Arab world. That has proved difficult, as the conflict continues to rage daily in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
On Sunday, Jewish settlers rampaged through Palestinian neighborhoods in the West Bank city of Hebron, smashing windows and destroying property as they held a funeral march for a settler leader slain by Palestinian gunmen.
The funeral of Nathaniel Ozeri, who was shot and killed Friday night as he and his family were sitting down to their Sabbath dinner in a remote settlement outpost outside Hebron, became a melee as mourners also quarreled over where he should be buried.
The day ended with the corpse still not interred, contrary to Jewish religious law. Israeli media reported late Sunday that Ozeri's widow, Livnat, tried to drive the body back to Jerusalem but was halted by Israeli troops.
The killing and the subsequent turmoil reflected the tension and animosity in Hebron, which has been a frequent focal point for violence throughout nearly 2 1/2 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
About 600 Jewish settlers live in the city, scattered in tiny enclaves set among 120,000 Palestinians. Several thousand more settlers live just outside the city in a well-fortified community called Kiryat Arba.
Clashes regularly erupt between Palestinians and the settlers, who are considered to be among the most extreme in the West Bank. Soldiers protecting the settlers often impose strict curfews on Hebron's Palestinian residents to provide the settlers with greater security and freedom of movement.
Palestinians were confined to their homes Sunday as the funeral march was taking place, and a heavy contingent of Israeli soldiers and police was on hand to prevent fighting. But some of the settlers broke away and hurled rocks at Palestinian homes, smashing the windows, and dragged satellite dishes down from rooftops.
Ozeri, 34, had been associated with the extremist outlawed Kach movement and was also a mentor to the "hilltop youth" -- young settlers who set up illegal outposts outside of existing Jewish settlements in an attempt to claim more land.
Attempts by Israeli authorities to evacuate several of the outposts have resulted in brawls and scuffles between settlers and Israeli troops.
Ozeri, his wife and five children were living in an unauthorized outpost, an isolated hillside house outside Kiryat Arba. One of his children, a 4-year-old girl, was wounded in Friday's attack.
The two Palestinian gunmen were killed, one on the spot by two armed associates of Ozeri who were visiting him and the other by army troops the next day.