Sharon sets peace "test" for Palestinians
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, setting a test for a new Palestinian leadership, said it could show its desire for peace by ending incitement against Israel even before any crackdown on militants.
In what appeared to be softening of terms for renewing talks with the Palestinians, Sharon told members of his Likud party late on Thursday that anti-Israeli propaganda in Palestinian schools and media was as dangerous as Palestinian weapons.
"I don't intend to waste time and my plan is to find any way, when the new Palestinian leadership is ready to open talks, to begin to advance our relations with the Palestinians," Sharon said.
"How will the Palestinian leadership be tested? We must not waive our demands on collecting weapons and dismantling terrorist organizations, but it's clear that this is a more complicated process," he said.
"In contrast, there are two demands that are in the new leadership's control, which they must implement immediately," Sharon added, citing an end to "constant poisonous incitement and propaganda" in the Palestinian media and educational system.
Israeli analysts called Sharon's comments a departure from his long-standing condition that the Palestinian Authority must first dismantle militant groups, as a U.S.-backed peace "road map" demands, before violence-stalled peacemaking can resume.
There was no immediate Palestinian comment on Sharon's remarks.
Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Mahmoud Abbas has vowed to crack down on armed groups to smooth the way to a Jan. 9 presidential election for a successor to Yasser Arafat, who died of an undisclosed illness on Nov. 11.
Sharon addressed his party ahead of a planned visit to the West Bank and Israel by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who announced his resignation on Monday.
U.S. President George W. Bush has said the death of Arafat opened new opportunities for Middle East peace.
In Gaza on Thursday, senior leaders of Arafat's Fatah group urged members of the Palestinian security forces who have been moonlighting as militants to cut ties with the Islamic groups.
Dozens of Palestinian police and intelligence officers are suspected to be working undercover as militants, most aligning with the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and some working with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
"The Fatah Central Committee urged the government to speed the implementation of the decision to return members of the security agencies to their units," said senior leader Tayeb Abdel-Rahim.
Hundreds of Israelis have been killed in attacks and suicide bombings by Palestinian militants. Israeli troops have often killed Palestinian security officers moonlighting as gunmen.
Chaos has increased in the Palestinian territories, marked by the kidnapping of security officials and street battles between rival factions. Abbas himself narrowly escaped injury in a gunfight on Sunday between his bodyguards and militants.