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Arafat: Palestinians ready to talk

©Associated Press

February 9, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- shunned by the Israeli government for more than a year -- on Saturday welcomed the renewal of high-level contacts between the two sides and called for more talks.

But a senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the U.S.-backed proposal for relaunching full-fledged negotiations had been put on hold until Israel forms a new government, a process expected to take several weeks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held secret talks Wednesday with Ahmed Qureia, a leading Palestinian negotiator, raising the possibility that the sides could make a new push to end two years of fighting.

The meeting was Sharon's first with a top Palestinian figure in about a year, and Israel's Channel Two television said more contacts were expected in the coming week.

Still, previous talks have failed to produce a breakthrough, and Sharon has refused to meet Arafat, accusing him of encouraging violence. Sharon has called Arafat's removal a prerequisite for restarting peace talks with the Palestinians. The negotiations collapsed two years ago, shortly before Sharon was elected prime minister.

Arafat, meanwhile, said the Palestinians were ready to restart talks.

"There is a decision within the Palestinian leadership to continue talks with the Israelis," Arafat said at his battered headquarters in Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem. "We are ready for any talks as long as this might lead us to peace."

Arafat called on Sharon to restart talks after Sharon's Likud party won a convincing victory on Jan. 28. Sharon refused, but later met with Qureia.

"You have to remember that I asked Sharon to resume negotiations with me and he rejected this," Arafat said. "This was just a few days after he won the elections."

If the sides resume formal talks, they are expected to focus on the U.S.-backed "road map," which calls for both sides to take a series of steps away from confrontation and violence, and envisions a full-fledged Palestinian state by 2005.

Sharon has up to six weeks to establish a coalition, and wants a broad national-unity government. But if he cannot persuade moderate parties to join him, he might be left with a collection of right-wing and religious parties that oppose concessions to the Palestinians and demand even tougher Israeli military actions.

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