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Sharon Willing to Talk With Palestinians

October 31, 2003

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expressed a willingness to negotiate with the new Palestinian prime minister, but U.S. officials said the Palestinians first must dismantle terror organizations.

Sharon, speaking Thursday at an economic forum in Tel Aviv, said he believes ``we are on the verge of a new opportunity to bring about quiet and peace.″

Sharon blamed Palestinian reluctance for the absence of a top-level dialogue between the two sides.

``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.″

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.

The implementation of the ``road map″ peace plan, which was drafted by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union and presented in June, has bogged down in violence and efforts to form a stable Palestinian government.

Sharon’s comments came 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.

Any new truce would replace one that collapsed in the summer. On June 29, the main Palestinian militant groups declared a unilateral halt to attacks against Israelis. But six weeks later, there was a new wave of militant suicide bombings and Israeli military operations.

Israel has been cool to the idea of a new truce, demanding instead that the Palestinians crack down on the violent groups and disarm them, as required by the peace plan, which aims at ending violence and creating a Palestinian state by 2005.

Russia, meanwhile, introduced a resolution asking the U.N. Security Council to endorse the peace plan. But U.S. deputy ambassador James Cunningham said the timing wasn’t right, citing the absence of a Palestinian government that can implement the peace plan.

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.

In New York on Thursday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the road map was ``a fact of political life.″

``It is the most reliable guide to achieving the objective of two states living side by side,″ she said at the U.S. government’s foreign press center.

For the plan to work, Rice said, the new Palestinian government needs to ensure that ``terrorism is being fought, terrorist infrastructures are being dismantled and the Palestinian leadership has control of its security forces.″

Reflecting Washington’s frustration, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz _ the Pentagon’s No. 2 official _ praised an alternative peace plan drawn up by a prominent Palestinian moderate and the former head of Israel’s secret service.

Israeli Adm. Ami Ayalon and Palestinian professor Sari Nusseibeh claim to have collected 100,000 Israeli and 60,000 Palestinian signatures in three months.

Their petition calls for Israel to withdraw to the borders it had before the 1967 war, when it captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The document calls for a demilitarized Palestinian state in those territories.

In a lecture at Georgetown University, Wolfowitz said the petition’s principles ``look very much like″ the Bush administration’s ``road map″ to a peaceful, two-state solution.

Also Thursday, officials said an Israeli court ordered a U.N. agency to pay a landlord hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent on a five-story Jerusalem building the agency seized 51 years ago.

The U.N. Truce Supervision Organization occupied the building after the 1948 Mideast war because it overlooked the cease-fire line between Jordan and Israel.

Landlord Paul Siraganian, who now lives in Bethesda, Md., questioned why UNTSO still needed the property since the cease-fire line was erased by a 1967 war and peace was declared in 1994, said his lawyer, Jonathan Kuttab.

In recent years, UNTSO paid $2,460 per month for the building.

The Jerusalem District Court ordered UNTSO to pay $25,000 a month in back rent for seven years and then leave the premises, Kuttab said.

Israel’s attorney general cited U.N. immunity in asking the court to reconsider, said Justice Ministry spokesman Jacob Galanti.

The court said it will not rule before the parties try to negotiate a settlement.

A U.N. spokesman did not return calls seeking comment.

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