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Arafat Welcomes Talks With Israelis

Although he is not invited, the Palestinian leader says he backs any discussions about peace.

February 09, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Saturday welcomed the resumption of high-level contacts with Israel, even though he has not been allowed to take part in them.

Israeli sources disclosed Friday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had met two days earlier with Ahmed Korei, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, and that other such talks had taken place before Israel's Jan. 28 general election.

However, senior Palestinian officials played down the significance of these discussions, saying they were limited in scope. The officials also expressed disappointment that there would be no movement on a U.S.-backed proposal to relaunch peace talks until after Sharon forms a new government, which could take as long as six weeks.

Still, news of the talks was the first sign in many months of any possible rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians. Each side blames the other for the last 2 1/2 years of bloodshed, which has killed more than 700 Israelis and at least 1,800 Palestinians.

Israeli media reports suggested that the disclosure of the discussions could have been an effort to bolster Sharon's image as he tries to lure the left-leaning Labor Party into a governing coalition with his hard-line Likud. So far, Labor has refused.

Commentators also said the timing could reflect a desire on Sharon's part to appear more conciliatory toward the Palestinians as a U.S.-led conflict with Iraq grows more likely. Israel's Channel One television reported that the meetings came in response to intense pressure from the Bush administration.

Arafat, speaking to reporters at his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he has been confined for more than a year, said the Palestinians are willing to talk with anyone who can help restart negotiations.

"The Palestinian leadership has decided to pursue contacts with the Israelis ... or with any of our friends around the world," he said. "We are ready for any talks as long as this might lead us to peace."

Israel refuses to have any contact with the Palestinian Authority president, blaming him for fomenting violence. Sharon has said there are no prospects for peace until Arafat is removed from power.

Sources on both sides said Sharon met for about two hours Wednesday with Korei, better known as Abu Alaa. Korei is considered a moderate and played a major role in talks that led to the now-abandoned Oslo peace accords in 1993.

More contacts were expected in the coming week, Israeli officials said.

However, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that what Palestinians really want is quicker movement on the so-called road map, a blueprint for relaunching negotiations that was drafted by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

"I call on the world community to focus on ways to revive the peace process in the region," Erekat said.

Sharon has said he does not want the "road map" unveiled until after his new government is in place.

Also Saturday, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli troops demolished about a dozen Palestinian homes, two of them belonging to the families of Palestinian gunmen who killed two Israeli soldiers last week.

Palestinians and human rights groups denounce such punitive demolitions, but Israel insists that they serve as a deterrent to attacks.

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