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Arafat Welcomes Renewal of Talks with Israel - 2003-02-08

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Saturday he welcomes the renewal of direct, high level talks with Israel. Mr. Arafat was responding to reports that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had his first face to face meeting with a senior Palestinian official in nearly a year.

Mr. Arafat says there is a decision within the Palestinian leadership to continue talks with the Israelis. He says the Palestinians are ready for any discussions that might lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Mr. Arafat spoke to reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah at his battered headquarters, most of which was demolished last year by the Israeli army.

His comments came in the wake of confirmation from officials on both sides that Israeli Prime Minister Sharon met secretly on Wednesday with the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Ahmed Queria.

The discussions focused on an Israeli offer to gradually withdraw its troops from areas of the West Bank and allow Palestinian security forces to resume responsibility for law and order.

More such talks between Israel and the Palestinians on a proposed cease-fire to end more than two years of bloodshed are expected to take place on Monday.

But there is little prospect that Mr. Arafat, who has been isolated by Israel and the United States, will be directly involved in the process.

Mr. Arafat called for a resumption of talks after Mr. Sharon's Likud Party won a convincing victory in national elections on January 28. But Mr. Sharon turned down the offer.

The Israeli leader has consistently refused to talk with Mr. Arafat himself, and his talks with Mr. Queria marked the first meeting with a senior Palestinian official in about a year.

Mr. Sharon blames Mr. Arafat for the violence and has called for his removal.

President Bush, in a major policy speech on the Middle East last year, also called for Mr. Arafat to step aside.