- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

TEL AVIV — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday praised Palestinian steps to contain attacks on Israel by militants and said he foresees a “historic breakthrough” in ending the four-year-old Palestinian uprising and restarting peace talks.

The remarks, the most upbeat by Mr. Sharon in recent memory, also confirmed that his government seeks to cooperate with the Palestinians on Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, rather than pulling out unilaterally.

“We are monitoring recent developments in the Palestinian Authority with great interest, and it seems that there is a positive approach there regarding the war on terrorism and advancing the diplomatic process,” Mr. Sharon told a convention of building contractors in Tel Aviv.

“I believe that the conditions have been created which will enable us and the Palestinians to reach a historic breakthrough in relations between us, a breakthrough which would lead us towards quiet and security and — in the future — even the hoped-for peace.”

The statement came as aides to Mr. Sharon met Palestinian officials to prepare for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — the first Israeli-Palestinian summit in 18 months.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia yesterday issued a decree forbidding Palestinian civilians from carrying weapons in public, a nod toward Israel’s demand for the disarmament of militias.

Palestinian police officers also were expected to fan out in the southern Gaza Strip to protect Jewish settlements from attack, completing a deployment that began in northern Gaza a week ago.

Calm during the past week has been facilitated by an informal cease-fire among Palestinian militants, who are giving Mr. Abbas a month to get assurances from Israel that it will halt assassinations of Palestinian officials and intrusions into the West Bank and Gaza.

A leading member of Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party cautioned against too much optimism.

“I wouldn’t be so enthusiastic. The real test of [Mr. Abbas] is not enforcing a temporary cessation of violence, but disarming those terrorist militias,” said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“It is still extremely too early to say that we are having a historic opportunity for peace. Even with a serious cease-fire, there are gaps to be bridged. This is just the beginning of a very long process.”

Analysts said the optimism serves Mr. Sharon’s goal of building support for his plan to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

By burnishing the Palestinians’ credentials as partners in the war on terrorism, Mr. Sharon is putting critics of the withdrawal in the position of being peace-process opponents, said Shmuel Bar, a Middle East specialist at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya.

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