Israel is ready to coordinate its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with the new Palestinian leadership, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a published interview, saying he wants to take advantage of new opportunities created by the death of Yasser Arafat.
In separate interviews with Newsweek magazine, both Sharon and the interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, said they would be willing to meet after the Jan. 9 Palestinian presidential election. Both leaders also vowed to make efforts to restart the US-backed "road map" to peace, a stalled plan that calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state next year.
The comments reflected the new atmosphere of reconciliation since the Nov. 11 death of Arafat, whom Israel accused of backing violence.
Sharon has said he drew up his "unilateral disengagement" plan to withdraw from all Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements next year when it became clear to him there was no "partner" on the Palestinian side. He has so far refused to negotiate the pullout with the Palestinians.
However, Sharon said Arafat's death made it possible to coordinate the pullout with the new Palestinian leadership and Abbas, who he said "was against terror."
"I am going to make every effort to coordinate our disengagement plan with the new Palestinian government -- one that can assume control over areas we evacuate," Sharon was quoted as saying.
"Israel will not evacuate under fire. We prefer a coordinated evacuation, but we will not tolerate any attacks during our withdrawal. We are speaking about thousands of people -- children, babies, women, old people and animals," Sharon added.
Abbas, for his part, said he is trying to take control of what he described as "chaos" in the West Bank, and especially the Gaza Strip, in a reference to internal violence that has plagued the areas in recent months.
Abbas said he has launched talks with the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups in an attempt to "cool down the whole situation, to stop all kinds of violence and terror."
"We are ready to take [Gaza] when we rebuild our security apparatus. If you tell me [do it] now, I'll say I cannot, but I'm working very had to rebuild the security apparatus," Abbas was quoted as saying.
The road map calls for the Palestinian Authority to reform and streamline its 12 security forces, a step Arafat refused, fearing it would upset top commanders and other loyalists. Rival commanders were often accused of corruption and abusing power.
In a first sign that Abbas will try to reform the security forces, the Palestinian Authority on Saturday announced a plan to disband a small Gaza security force tainted by accusations of abuse.
Both leaders spoke of the opportunity presented by the death of Arafat, and indicated they planned to make the most of the rare chance to launch a peace initiative that could succeed.