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Sharon Said to Favor Cease-Fire Offer

December 22, 2003

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Prime Minister Ariel Sharon indicated to Egypt’s foreign minister Monday that Israel would respond favorably to a cease-fire offer from Palestinian militants, an Israeli official said.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher met with Sharon and other senior Israeli officials during his first trip to Israel in more than two years, hoping to restart talks on the stalled U.S.-backed ``road map″ plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Egypt, which has often played a mediator’s role between the two sides, has been pressuring Palestinian militants to halt attacks on Israel.

The militants have so far rebuffed the Egyptian efforts. Israel has also largely dismissed talk of a cease-fire, saying the militant groups must be dismantled, as required by the road map. But in a potential shift, Sharon indicated to Maher on Monday that Israel would halt activity against militants if there is a cease-fire.

``We will respond to quiet with quiet,″ said a senior source in the prime minister’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The source said the meeting went very well, and that Maher indicated the talks could lead to a summit between Sharon and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak _ something Mubarak has avoided since Sharon, a career hardliner, came to power in 2001.

``Maher spared no effort to show that they want to warm up relations,″ the source said.

After meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Maher told a news conference that he was very optimistic that the cease-fire talks with the Palestinian factions would be successful and that the road map can be revived.

``Let’s start this road which will lead us to a solution and to peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, which will be beneficial to the whole region,″ Maher said. ``So, I come out from here encouraged, but the encouragement needs to be followed up by actions. We hope to see actions from both sides as soon as possible.″

The road map lays out a process that is supposed to lead to a Palestinian state in 2005, but talks bogged down amid violence and foot-dragging on both sides.

Under the plan, Palestinians must dismantle violent groups, and Israel must halt construction in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and take down unauthorized outposts. Neither side has carried out these obligations.

In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel. But relations have often been cool, and Israel has perceived Cairo as favoring the Palestinians.

Egypt withdrew its ambassador in protest against Israeli actions shortly after the current round of violence erupted in September 2000. The ambassador has not returned, though Egypt has continued to play a mediator’s role.

Egyptian officials confirmed that Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has been mediating the internal Palestinian cease-fire talks, would travel to the West Bank next week with Maher for talks with Palestinian leaders.

Israeli officials hoped that Maher’s visit Monday would signal a new era of closer ties.

``I am sure that this visit will contribute to the strengthening of relations between Egypt and Israel,″ Sharon said. ``I hope this visit will contribute to our relationship with the Palestinian Authority and our efforts to reach a peace agreement.″

Sharon has grown impatient with the impasse with the Palestinians and has pushed for tough action by the Palestinian Authority against the militant groups.

He threatened last Thursday to separate from the Palestinian areas unilaterally if there is no progress in peace talks over the next few months.

Under Sharon’s plan, Israel will dismantle some settlements to reduce friction and speed up construction of its separation barrier _ which in some areas slices deep into the West Bank _ as part of a temporary border.

The White House has said it would oppose any effort to impose a settlement and has cautioned Israel against unilateral moves.

Israeli settler groups and their supporters have also criticized Sharon’s plan. More than 220,000 Israelis live among some 3.5 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Amid the diplomatic efforts, fighting continued in the West Bank. Palestinian witnesses reported clashes in Jenin between Israeli troops and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a group loosely linked to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction.

The witnesses said four civilians had been wounded and a militant leader arrested. The army also imposed a curfew in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, witnesses said.

The army said it was conducting ongoing action against the ``terrorist infrastructure″ in the Nablus area. It did not immediately comment on the fighting in Jenin.

Meanwhile, Israel’s military chief said 13 reservists from the elite ``Sayeret Matkal″ commando unit who are refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza will be kicked out of the military if they don’t change their minds.

The reservists signed a letter to Sharon on Sunday announcing their refusal to serve in the Palestinian areas. The statement from members of such a top unit sent shock waves through the Israeli political and military system, coming after a similar letter in September by 27 reserve and retired air force pilots.

The decision signified a growing trend among Israeli soldiers opposed to occupation to refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The commandos and pilots have an esteemed reputation in a society shaped by mandatory military service.

Several hundred reserve soldiers have been sent to prison for refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza.

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