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Fresh nod to peace process in Israel?

In interview, deputy prime minister says Sharon is considering unilateral steps.

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Following sharp internal and external criticism of his policies, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is indicating that he is contemplating "unilateral measures" intended to ease Palestinian suffering and perhaps to invigorate a moribund peace process.

In a Monitor interview Sunday, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Mr. Sharon had told him and other ministers that "we have to make every possible effort to take notice of the human needs of the Palestinian population ... and this is unconditional to the question [of] whether there is terror or not. Because if we will condition it to terror then we will never take these measures because terror will continue."

For a leader who has made resumption of substantive peace talks with the Palestinians conditional on an absolute cessation of violence, Sharon's position - as recounted by Mr. Olmert - seems to be evolving.

While Israel has never made a policy of linking humanitarian gestures with reduced violence, in practice it has seemed that way. In the name of easing Palestinian suffering, Israel has frequently rolled back restrictions that curb many Palestinians' ability to earn money, attend school, and get healthcare - and then reinstated them following a Palestinian attack.

Sharon seems to be cultivating a sense of mystery about his plans. "Thus far, I haven't discussed it with anyone," he told the mass-circulation Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth over the weekend, but he did not deny a report, the newspaper said, about his intention to evacuate some isolated settlements - Jewish communities built on occupied Palestinian land in contravention of international law.

Olmert said that Sharon did not address settlement evacuation in his meeting with four top ministers on Sunday, but regarding outposts - mini-settlements used to expand existing Jewish communities or establish new ones - "there will be a close examination of all the commitments made by Israel within the context of this issue and we will make exceptional efforts to fulfill [them]."

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