Wed, Jan 12, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Sharon telephones Abbas; meeting to be scheduled

AGENCIES , Ramallah, West Bank

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon telephoned Mahmoud Abbas yesterday to congratulate him on his election as Palestinian president, the highest-level Israeli-Palestinian contact in years.

"Mr Abbas and Mr Sharon spoke about ways to revive the peace process and about a meeting between the two, which will be set up in the next few days," said Maher Shalabi, a spokesman for Abbas.

The two men, who last met in 2003 when Abbas was Palestinian prime minister, spoke for 10 minutes, officials said.

Fresh from a landslide victory in an election to replace Yasser Arafat, Abbas earlier offered peace talks to Israel just as Sharon was installing a new, dovish government supportive of withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank.

But clouds hovered over both leaders on Monday, despite their victories.

While pledging to work with Abbas, militant Palestinian groups challenged the value of Abbas' election victory, claiming that not enough voters took part.

As for Sharon, the narrow 58 to 56 parliamentary vote in favor of his new team, allowing it to take office, was possible only with the support of a dovish opposition party, as his own Likud Party split over his plan to remove all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank in the summer.

Abbas' victory, which capped a peaceful transition of power after the Nov. 11 death of Arafat, has raised hopes around the world that peace talks could soon resume.

"We extend our hands to our neighbors," Abbas declared late on Monday after a meeting with international observers who monitored the election. "We are ready for peace, peace based on justice. We hope that their response will be positive."

Sharon welcomed Abbas' victory but said he will watch closely how he tries to subdue militants.

A senior Israeli defense ministry official said Israel is ready to hand over to the Palestinians security duties in West Bank cities. The official said discussions with the Palestinians on the matter would likely begin in the coming days.

In Washington, US President George W. Bush congratulated Abbas and invited the new Palestinian leader to the White House -- an offer never extended to Arafat.

Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh called the invitation "encouraging."

Final results released on Monday showed Abbas winning 62.3 percent of the vote, said Hanna Nasser, head of the Central Election Commission. His main challenger, independent Mustafa Barghouti, won 19.8 percent, while the remaining five candidates scored in the lower single digits.

However, Nasser declined to give a turnout figure, citing confusion over the number of unregistered voters who were deemed eligible to vote.

Voting was extended by two hours on Sunday in what officials with Abbas' Fatah movement acknowledged was a move to encourage more people to vote.

On Sunday, Palestinian officials said close to 70 percent of 1.1 million registered voters cast ballots.

Militant groups, which have carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Israel over the past four years, boycotted the election, though they did not try to disrupt the voting. After the vote count, they expressed doubts.

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Bush pledges to meet with Abu Mazen

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