- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2003

JERUSALEM Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, shunned by the Israeli government for more than a year, welcomed yesterday the renewal of high-level contacts between the two sides and called for additional talks.
But a senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the U.S.-backed proposal for reviving full-fledged negotiations had been put on hold until Israel forms a new government, a process expected to take several weeks.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held secret talks Wednesday with Ahmed Qureia, a leading Palestinian negotiator and speaker of the Palestinian council, raising the possibility that the sides could make a new push to end more than two years of fighting.
The meeting was Mr. Sharon's first with a top Palestinian figure in about a year, and Israel's Channel 2 television said more contacts are expected this week.
Still, previous talks have not produced a breakthrough, and Mr. Sharon has refused to meet Mr. Arafat, accusing him of encouraging violence. Mr. Sharon has called Mr. Arafat's removal a prerequisite for restarting peace talks with the Palestinians. The negotiations collapsed two years ago, shortly before Mr. Sharon was elected prime minister.
Mr. Arafat, meanwhile, said the Palestinians are ready to restart talks.
"There is a decision within the Palestinian leadership to continue talks with the Israelis," he told reporters at his battered headquarters in Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem. "We are ready for any talks as long as this might lead us to peace."
Mr. Arafat called on Mr. Sharon to restart talks after Mr. Sharon's Likud party won a convincing election victory Jan. 28. Mr. Sharon refused, but days later he met with Mr. Qureia.
If the sides resume formal talks, they are expected to focus on the U.S.-backed "road map," which calls for both sides to back off from confrontation and violence, and envisions a full-fledged Palestinian state by 2005.
But to the disappointment of the Palestinians, the plan is on hold until Mr. Sharon forms a government, Mr. Erekat said.
Mr. Sharon has as long as six weeks to establish a coalition and wants a broad, national-unity government. But if he cannot persuade moderate parties to join him, he may be left with a collection of right-wing and religious parties that oppose concessions to the Palestinians and demand even tougher Israeli military actions.
Palestinian officials said the Sharon-Qureia meeting Wednesday lasted less than two hours and centered on a cease-fire. Israeli officials confirmed only that the meeting took place and covered the current conflict.
Mr. Qureia, 65, also known as Abu Ala, was a key negotiator in failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He is a close Arafat associate and has maintained ties with Israeli leaders.
Shimon Peres, Israel's former foreign minister, welcomed the talks.
"I think tomorrow morning we can start talking with Palestinian officials," Mr. Peres told Israel's Army radio.

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