Sharon bows to US pressure on talks with Palestinians

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The Independent Online

Urged by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, to "get started now", the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was seeking a meeting with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, within the next week, Israeli officials said yesterday.

Urged by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, to "get started now", the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was seeking a meeting with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, within the next week, Israeli officials said yesterday.

"We are ready," said Raanan Gissin, Mr Sharon's spokesman. "We are trying to arrange it before the Prime Minister goes to Washington next Sunday."

Palestinian sources said Mr Abbas was willing in principle, but they were concerned that the Bush administration might then draw back and leave the two sides to their own devices. They insisted that continued American engagement was essential if the international "road-map" was to bring peace.

Mr Powell flew into Israel as if he were a cheerleader, telling the Israelis and Palestinians that the Iraq war and the appointment of a Palestinian Prime Minister offered a historic opportunity not to be missed. The Secretary of State left in a haze of goodwill, but with few concrete results from extensive talks in Jerusalem and Jericho. Both the Americans and the Israelis offered the Palestinians sweeteners. Mr Powell announced $50m (£30m) in emergency aid "to assist in rebuilding roads, creating jobs, help small businesses and furthering the reform process". Israel relaxed the closure that has kept West Bank and Gaza Strip towns under siege for two months, allowed some Palestinian workers to return to jobs in Israel, eased restrictions on Gaza fishermen and began releasing dozens of Palestinian prisoners.

Yet neither the Israelis nor Palestinians budged from their familiar positions.

Mr Sharon demanded that the new Palestinian government act to disarm and disband the militant groups. He stretched the net to include official security services that "are involved in terror and use terror and co-operate with other terrorist organisations".

Mr Abbas presented his own shopping list. Israel, he said, had to accept the road-map without amendments. "We are looking forward to a complete cessation of settlement activity and an end to the siege, the separation wall, assassinations, collective punishment and destruction of property and restrictions on the movement of Palestinian citizens," he said.

He also demanded the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners and said that Yasser Arafat, blockaded in his Ramallah headquarters for more than a year, should be allowed to go where he wanted.

The Americans were keeping their distance from Mr Arafat, whom they no longer believe capable of making peace. "We recognise that Mr Arafat is still there," Mr Powell said, "but the United States will not be dealing with him".

Mr Sharon reiterated that Israel was ready to make "painful concessions" for a durable peace but declined to specify whether he would evacuate Jewish settlements. Mr Powell insisted that there would have to be a settlement freeze, but he left the detailed discussion until Mr Sharon's visit to Washington next week.

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