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Palestinian Premier Balks at Peace Talks

Korei insists he won't meet with Sharon unless Israel ends construction of its security wall. Israel says work on the barrier will continue.

November 30, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei said Saturday that there was no point in holding talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unless Israel halts construction of a much-criticized security wall.

But Israel -- which has already sharply rebuffed international calls to stop building the barrier, made of concrete blocks, razor-wire fencing, watchtowers, trenches and motion sensors -- expressed renewed determination to move ahead with the construction.

Israeli officials also said Sharon would not agree to any Palestinian demands as a condition to a meeting by the two leaders.

Korei has spoken out strongly against the security barrier's construction, but his comments Saturday marked the most explicit linkage he has yet made between the status of the fence and prospects for face-to-face talks with Sharon.

"If the Israeli government says it will continue building the wall

However, he softened that statement somewhat by adding: "I am not saying this is a precondition, but I want serious positions." Israel, still smarting from condemnation of the barrier Friday by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, repeated its assertion that the wall, envisioned to eventually run the entire 425-mile length of the West Bank, is a necessary means of defense against Palestinian attacks, including suicide bombings.

Annan's criticism was "a reward for all who use terror as a means to realize their political aims," the Israeli Foreign Ministry said Saturday in a statement.

When Korei's full Cabinet was sworn in earlier this month -- nearly two months after he took office with a skeleton government -- both Israel and the Palestinians said they expected a meeting of Korei and Sharon within days. But that early optimistic talk has not come to fruition.

Korei had met Sharon on several previous occasions in his capacity as Palestinian parliament speaker, but a first formal session between the two prime ministers is considered essential to restarting talks on the now-comatose American-backed peace plan known as the "road map."

In advance of any talks, both leaders have been mindful of their respective domestic audiences. Sharon has dropped hints that he might consider evacuating Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, but he has also warned the Palestinians that if they didn't move quickly toward deal-making, he might move to annex large West Bank settlements.

Korei, for his part, is trying not to make the same mistake as his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, who traveled to Jerusalem to talk with Sharon within two weeks of taking office.

Successive talks between the two leaders yielded no substantial concessions for Abbas to show to the Palestinian public, and he quickly became the target of his people's frustration and fury over the hardships of Israeli occupation. That angry public sentiment, coupled with a power struggle with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, drove Abbas to resign after four months in office.

Korei is maneuvering especially carefully in advance of Egyptian-mediated talks in the coming week with Palestinian militant factions including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Those groups were among the first to denounce Abbas as too soft on Israel, and Korei does not want to give them an early excuse to treat him similarly.

Officials on both sides say privately that there is little reason to believe Israel will meet Korei's demand to stop building the wall, but Sharon could take other immediate steps to entice his counterpart to meet. High on the list would be the lifting of tight military restrictions on Palestinians' movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But the security barrier has come to symbolize accumulated bitterness on both sides stemming from the 3-year-old conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 850 Israelis and more than 2,750 Palestinians.

Israel says if Palestinians had not launched a bloody campaign of suicide bombings in Israeli cities and towns, there would be no urgent need for such a barrier. Palestinians describe the wall as a bald land grab, gobbling up what the United Nations says will be 14% of the West Bank, if construction proceeds as planned.

Korei, in his remarks in Ramallah, called it a "destructive wall." Despite the public displays of anger on both sides, contacts were continuing. Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat, a key figure in past negotiations, was to meet today with Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass.

And Korei traveled to Jordan on Saturday for his first talks with senior American envoy William Burns. Despite a strong sense among the Palestinian leadership that President Bush has not done nearly enough to follow up on the highly public launching of the road map initiative at a Mideast summit in June, Palestinian officials continue to believe that only the U.S. administration can apply sufficient pressure to force concessions from Sharon.

"We want the U.S. to be involved with all its efforts in the peace process," Korei said Saturday. "We hope it is prepared to do that."

Palestinians had voiced disappointment last week with the U.S. decision to withhold $289.5 million in loan guarantees to signal its disapproval of some Israeli actions in the West Bank. The Palestinians pointed out that it amounted to a penalty of only a few million dollars to the Israeli government, which would have to raise the money under less favorable terms.

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