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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 Palestinian crackdown on militant groups.

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 negotiations.

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 Friday.

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 interest."

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 assured.

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 unlikely.

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 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 freeze.

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."

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