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Israel Admits Continuing Contact with Palestinians - 2002-12-18


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says his government is still in contact with moderate Palestinians after more than two years of conflict.

The news that the Sharon government is continuing contacts came as a bit of a surprise since the prime minister had ruled out talks with Palestinians until attacks against Israelis end.

During an interview with Israeli television Tuesday night, Mr. Sharon did not name the Palestinians he is talking with. But he said the contacts will continue. He said the number of people who are prepared to talk peace is growing and that he is ready to talk to anyone of those people.

Mr. Sharon also said he is not prepared to talk about any so-called road maps to peace until after Israel's January 28 election. The United States presented the outlines of such a proposal to the Israelis and Palestinians in August.

In a related development Israel Radio reported Wednesday that despite pressure from European governments, the Bush administration will announce this week that it will hold off officially presenting its road map for Middle East peace until after Israel's general elections.

The United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - the diplomatic "quartet" working toward a Middle East peace plan - is to meet in Washington on Friday. Their talks are expected to be feature a discussion of the so-called road map.

Mr. Sharon is running for re-election against Labor Party candidate Amram Mitzna, who has been promising an immediate Israeli troop withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and talks on a pull-back from the West Bank.

Mr. Mitzna spoke about that policy in a speech at an Israeli high school on Tuesday. In those remarks he struck what is being interpreted here as a tougher tone. He said he is proposing to "separate from the Palestinians." Then, in words directed at the Palestinians themselves, he said "if you want, we will do it with agreement. If you continue with terror, we will beat you to a pulp."

Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has given a warm welcome to British plans for a Middle East peace summit in London early next month.

Prime Minster Tony Blair invited a senior Palestinian delegation to the talks, but it is unclear if Mr. Arafat will go. Mr. Blair also invited Egyptian, Saudi, and Jordanian officials and representatives of the so-called Mideast quartet.

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