Sat, Nov 01, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Sharon says now is time to negotiate

ABOUT-TURNIsrael earlier said it would not talk with the Palestinian government, but the prime minister says the postponed `road map' for peace must be discussed

AP , JERUSALEM

Palestinian youths hurl stones at an Israeli army D-9 bulldozer on the outskirts of the northern West Bank city of Nablus. Going into service now is the remote-controlled D-9 bulldozer, developed by the Technion Institute of Technology, together with the army.

PHOTO: AP

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he was ready to negotiate with the new Palestinian prime minister at any time, but US officials took a tougher stance, saying the Palestinians first must dismantle terror organizations.

Israel previously indicated it would not talk with the new Palestinian government led by Ahmed Qureia because that Cabinet was too closely associated with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

Sharon, speaking on Thursday night at an economic forum in Tel Aviv, said the absence of a top-level dialogue between the two sides was due to Palestinian reluctance.

"The reason we don't have prime ministerial level contacts stems from the fact that Palestinians have requested time to allow the designated Palestinian prime minister to establish himself," Sharon said.

"We are ready to enter negotiations at any time."

Qureia leads an emergency Cabinet appointed by Arafat with a one-month mandate that expires on Nov. 4. Arafat has asked Qureia to form a full Cabinet by then, but Qureia has been unable to do so, partly because of serious disagreements with Arafat.

Israel and the US are boycotting Arafat, charging that he is involved in Palestinian terrorism. The absence of a stable Palestinian Cabinet has stopped talks over the US-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for an end to violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

In New York on Thursday, US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the road map was "a fact of political life."

"It is the most reliable guide to achieving the objective of two states living side by side," she said at the US government's foreign press center.

For the plan to work, Rice said, the new Palestinian government needs to ensure that "terrorism is being fought, terrorist infrastructures are being dismantled and the Palestinian leadership has control of its security forces."

Reflecting Washington's deep frustration, Deputy US Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- the Pentagon's No. 2 official -- praised an alternative peace plan drawn up by a prominent Palestinian moderate and the former head of Israel's secret service.

Israeli Admiral Ami Ayalon and Palestinian professor Sari Nusseibeh claim to have collected 100,000 Israeli and 60,000 Palestinian signatures in three months.

Their petition calls for Israel to withdraw to the borders it had before the 1967 war, when it captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The document calls for a demilitarized Palestinian state in those territories.

In a lecture at Georgetown University in Washington, Wolfowitz said on Thursday that the petition's principles "look very much like" the Bush administration's "road map" to a peaceful, two-state solution.

Also on Thursday, Russia introduced a resolution asking the UN Security Council to endorse the "road map" but the US said the timing was not right. US deputy ambassador James Cunningham cited the absence of a Palestinian government that can implement the peace plan.

But an optimistic-sounding Sharon told the Tel Aviv forum he believes "we are on the verge of a new opportunity to bring about quiet and peace."

Sharon's comments come a day after Qureia said he has a two-stage strategy for achieving a ceasefire ending three years of Mideast violence.

Qureia wants to first negotiate a truce with Palestinian militants and then ask Israel to sign on.

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