By Corinne Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel responded defiantly on Thursday to unusually sharp criticism by President Bush of a barrier it is building through Palestinian areas in the West Bank.
Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said the barrier, a measure Israel contends is necessary to stop suicide bombers and which the Palestinians condemn as a land grab, would remain an option.
"Israel will always have the right to take unilateral steps for separation from the Palestinians through a fence or other means," Olmert told Israel Radio.
In a speech in London on Wednesday, Bush toughened his stance over the barrier, saying Israel must not prejudice final peace negotiations "with the placement of walls and fences."
Further diplomatic pressure on Israel came from the U.N. Security Council, which voted unanimously for a Russian-drafted resolution supporting a Middle East peace plan known as the "road map."
Israel had opposed the resolution, wanting no U.N. role in peacemaking since it sees the world body as pro-Palestinian.
"Judgment regarding the plan's implementation will be in the hands of the United States," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said in a statement. "Israel will not accept any other intervention in the implementation of the plan."
The United States is the chief sponsor of the road map, which lays out steps Israel and the Palestinians should take toward setting up a Palestinian state by 2005.
Underscoring Israeli rejection of the U.N. resolution, Sharon said in a speech in Tel Aviv that Israel was committed to the road map "that President Bush presented."
"In addition to this, we do not rule out unilateral steps," he said in apparent reference to the West Bank barrier.
GAZA TRUCE TALKS
Egyptian mediators in Gaza held a second day of talks with Palestinian militants on a truce with Israel that could shore up the road map, which has been stalled by persistent violence.
Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie are expected to meet next week for the first time since the new Palestinian government was installed on November 12.
After meeting Qurie and Egyptian mediators in Gaza on Wednesday, the main Palestinian militant factions said they had agreed in principle to talks in Cairo early next month on a truce with Israel.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both committed to Israel's destruction, said Egypt had proposed talks on December 2. Arafat's Fatah faction would also attend.
Qurie also hopes to win Israeli agreement to a truce and move beyond a unilateral cease-fire that militants declared in June and which collapsed in a spate of violence two months later.
Israel rules out any formal truce with Islamic militants but has said it will suspend a campaign to capture or kill their leaders if attacks against Israelis cease.