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Chief Palestinian Negotiator Urges Resumption of Peace Talks


The Palestinians' top peace negotiator is urging Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to help restart peace talks, once the upheaval surrounding the health of ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon subsides.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says the Middle East has weathered what he called two recent "political volcanoes": the formation of Israel's new Kadima political party by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Mr. Sharon's health crisis following a massive stroke last week.

Speaking on CNN's Late Edition program, Mr. Erekat expressed hope that a renewed commitment to peace negotiations will emerge from Israel's political uncertainty.

"This may sound like wishful thinking, but to Mr. Olmert, I tell him [that] the only way to break this vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence is resuming the negotiations," said Mr. Erekat, "and I hope that if Mr. Olmert cannot do it now because of the confusion and the [political] transition, I hope that when the Israeli voters go to elect their new leaders, I hope they will elect a leadership that is willing to commit to peace and negotiations."

Full-scale peace talks have been largely stalled since Mr. Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas announced a verbal cease-fire pledge during a summit last February in Egypt, despite Israel's subsequent evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, regarded by some as a major unilateral concession.

Also speaking on Late Edition, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said he expects acting Prime Minister Olmert to continue Ariel Sharon's policies, but he did not rule out the possibility of a breakthrough in the future. "There may emerge a great opportunity to go further after Gaza [resolution] and to try to look for a possible solution in the West Bank in accordance with the Roadmap [for Mideast peace]," he said.

But Mr. Peres added that the foundations for peace could be affected by the outcome of Palestinian elections scheduled for later this month. In particular, he warned of the fallout that would likely ensue from a victory by the Islamist Hamas movement. "Do you imagine any government in the world that will finance a Hamas-like government, that will support their policies?" he asked. "It is impossible. If they [Hamas] will change and they will not be a terrorist organization, that is one story. If they remain unchanged, then they are not a partner [for peace]."

But former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Pickering says Israel has its own political uncertainties to deal with in the months ahead. Elections in Israel are scheduled for March 28, and recent polls show Mr. Sharon's newly formed Kadima Party could win, although who will lead the party following Mr. Sharon's departure remains unresolved. Mr. Pickering said the vision of any new leadership will be key.

"The real problem is whether the Israeli political system can produce a [peace] formula like the Sharon formula again, looking down the road at the future of Israel and understanding that the Israeli future depended heavily on living in the region with the Palestinian state, with a process to get there [to peace] that was equitable and that brought both of those folks [Israelis and Palestinians] along."

In the meantime, Mr. Pickering urged the Bush administration to remain engaged in the Middle East peace process, and to press for continuity and compromise even in the face of uncertainty.

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