Sharon drops key demand for peace talks
Updated: 2004-11-19 21:37
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signaled that he is dropping what was
once his key demand for resuming peace talks ¡ª a Palestinian crackdown on
Sharon said in a speech Thursday that while he still wants the armed
groups dismantled, any crackdown would be "complicated." He said he now
considers Palestinian efforts to stop incitement against Israel as a sufficient
sign of goodwill.
Palestinians have refused to confront the militants, saying they fear
civil war, and the standoff was one of the key obstacles in resuming
Israeli commentators described Sharon's shift in position as dramatic.
"There is no longer the demand ... of total war by the Palestinian
Authority on terror groups, collecting weapons and governmental reform," said a
commentary in Friday's editions of the Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper.
Asked about Sharon's comments, interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas
said the issue of how to handle the militants would have to be raised in future
contacts with Israel.
"We have our share to do, but they (the Israelis) have more," he said
Sharon's conciliatory tone comes amid international efforts to restart
the peace process in a spirit of hope after Yasser Arafat's death last week.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and foreign ministers from Britain, Russia and
other Western nations are expected in the region next week.
Palestinian officials said Powell would arrive for talks in the West Bank
town of Jericho on Monday. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was expected
Wednesday and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos on Dec. 2.
In the Gaza Strip Abbas held meetings over several days with rival
factions, including the largest Islamic militant group, Hamas. Abbas is trying
to get the group, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks and opposes
the Jewish state's existence, to agree to a cease-fire ahead of the Jan. 9
election of a Palestinian Authority president.
Abbas said the meetings went well, although it remained unclear whether
he won any assurances from militants.
"The weapons chaos should be stopped," Abbas told Palestine TV. "I
believe that all the officials and all the people here feel the responsibility
and feel the need to control the armed people, because it is not in anyone's
Abbas has rejected demands by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to hold legislative
and municipal elections on the same day as the presidential elections. The
militants are not fielding candidates in the presidential elections but expect
to do well in the legislative and municipal vote.
In a gesture to opposition groups, Abbas' Fatah movement said it would
push for municipal and legislative elections by June.
Arafat's death has opened up the political arena, encouraging even
independents and political outsiders to run for president. Starting Saturday,
candidates can formally put forward their names. Those expected to announce
their candidacies include Sheik Talal Sidr, a former Hamas leader who joined
forces with Arafat in 1996, and Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political science
professor and anti-corruption crusader.
In Fatah, meanwhile, Abbas' nomination as presidential candidate is not
The old guard of politicians led by Abbas is being challenged by younger
activists, who demand a share of power after being excluded during the Arafat
years. The young guard is led by Marwan Barghouti, an uprising leader jailed by
Israel and according to polls far more popular than Abbas.
Barghouti plans to run as an independent unless Fatah holds a primary to
choose its candidate, sources close to him have said. However, such a primary is
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio on Friday that
Israel would keep its distance until a new Palestinian leadership has emerged.
In an apparent reference to Abbas and Qureia, two pragmatists who oppose
violence, Shalom said: "I don't think they are really interested in contacts
with Israel before the new chairman is elected ... That could harm their chances
of being elected or even their chances of staying alive."
Shalom said any Israeli gestures to the Palestinians, including an easing of
strict travel bans in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, also would have to wait
until after the Palestinian elections.
Sharon, meanwhile, indicated he is ready to drop a key precondition for peace
talks ¡ª the dismantling of Palestinian militant groups.
Such a crackdown is listed as one of the Palestinian obligations in the
U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan launched in June 2003 but never implemented.
Abbas and Qureia have said they would not confront the militants, but would try
to persuade them to disarm.
Israel also failed to meet its basic obligations, including a settlement
Sharon said Thursday that Israel would insist the militants be disarmed
eventually, but added that "it is clear that it's a complicated process."
"On the other hand, there are two other demands which are under the direct
control of the Palestinian leadership, and we should insist on their immediate
implementation," he said. "One is the cessation of poisonous propaganda and
continuing incitement in the Palestinian television and media, second a drastic
change in the Palestinian educational system, ending incitement and demonization
of Israel, the Israelis and the Jews."