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Sharon says he will talk with Qureia any time

By Associated Press
Published October 31, 2003

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday he is ready to negotiate with the new Palestinian prime minister at any time, but U.S. officials took a tougher stance, saying the Palestinians first must "confront terror and violence."

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 leader Yasser Arafat.

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

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday: "We're looking for an empowered Palestinian prime minister who can take serious and credible measures to confront terror and violence. Until that occurs ... it's hard to make progress toward the president's vision."

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 cease-fire ending three years of Mideast violence.

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

Qureia, who has been talking with the militant group Hamas, said those discussions have been "constructive." Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin said this week his group would consider a truce but would not give up its right to strike at Israelis.


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