Palestinian leaders say peace talks should resume

Thursday, November 13, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat swore in a new Palestinian Cabinet on Wednesday, getting the government he wanted after a long wrangle and setting the stage for a renewed push to implement the stalled, U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

The new government earlier won a vote of confidence from Palestinian legislators after Arafat -- who appears to have survived the Israeli-American effort to sideline him -- joined Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in calling for an end to three years of violence that has claimed thousands of lives.

"The time has come between us and you Israelis ... to get out of this cycle of destructive war," Arafat said, referring to the violence that buried an ambitious effort to end a century of Arab-Israeli enmity.

Israeli officials said they will give the new premier a chance to restore calm, and Islamic militant groups said they will consider a cease-fire.

The approval of the Cabinet, which was sworn in Wednesday, ended a two-month stalemate that stymied efforts to implement the peace plan accepted by both sides six months ago.

The plan authored by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia calls for an end to violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

In the interim, Israel is to freeze settlement construction and the Palestinian security forces are to dismantle militant groups -- moves that have not occurred.

Qureia broke the stalemate Sunday by giving in to Arafat on the crucial question of who controls Palestinian security and police, leaving the veteran leader effectively in charge of most forces.

Parliament approved the Cabinet despite some lawmaker complaints it too closely resembled previous corrupt governments.

Israel and the United States, which accused Arafat of stoking terrorism, wanted the security agencies removed from his jurisdiction. In September, Israel declared it would act to "remove" Arafat.

But Israeli officials -- who face public pressure to find a way out of the violence -- suggested Wednesday they primarily were interested in restoring quiet.

"If the new Palestinian government is serious about pursuing peace and takes action to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism, they will find Israel to be a real partner," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

Raanan Gissin, Sharon's spokesman, urged Qureia to halt militant attacks on Israelis and consolidate security forces under one authority.

"We're prepared to give Ahmed Qureia a grace period and judge him by the results," Gissin said.

Speaking Wednesday evening to a group of Canadian fund-raisers, Sharon declared, "The Palestinians have come to realize that they cannot force us to surrender through violence, terrorism and incitement.

"We are prepared to make painful compromises for the sake of real peace," he said, but ruled out concessions over security issues.

Israel and the Palestinians reached an impasse under Qureia's predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, over his rejection of the peace plan's call -- and Israel's demand -- that the Palestinians disarm and dismantle militant groups.

Both the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups -- which have staged more than 100 suicide bombings in recent years -- indicated they were considering Qureia's call to end violence.

Adnan Asfour, Hamas spokesman in the West Bank, said the group "was ready to study any new hudna (cease-fire) offer."

Nafez Azzam, a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip, said the group welcomes "any dialogue with our brothers in the Palestinian Authority" but believes a truce depends on Israel stopping its "bloody aggression."

In exchange, an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity, Israel would be prepared to resume implementing the peace plan and ease its grip on the Palestinians -- eliminating many roadblocks, withdrawing from occupied cities and allowing more Palestinian workers into Israel.

In a speech to parliament, Qureia harshly criticized Israel's continuing clampdown but also called for an immediate, comprehensive cease-fire and a return to talks on the peace plan.

"Let's help each other stop this cycle of hell," Qureia said.

In other developments:

--An Islamic Jihad gunman was killed after shooting at Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip, military sources said.

--In Nablus, a 15-year-old Palestinian injured Saturday in clashes with Israeli troops died of his wounds, hospital officials said.

--Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington and told reporters afterward he conveyed Israel's commitment to the road map.

--A Palestinian was sent from the West Bank to Gaza under a deal to avoid jail time, Israeli officials said. Moshref Bethor agreed to go to Gaza for two years instead of serving time in an Israeli prison on unspecified charges.

--Israel formally introduced a U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for protection of Israeli children victimized by terrorism, but the Palestinians urged a "no" vote saying its real aim was to achieve "illegitimate political goals."

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