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Criticism Prompts Israeli PM to Soften Rhetoric - 2003-10-31

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says his government has maintained contacts with Palestinian officials, and remains ready to talk peace. He predicts a breakthrough may be near. His comments follow sharp criticism of his policies toward the Palestinians from within the Israeli military, and as groups of Israelis and Palestinians propose alternative peace initiatives.

Addressing an economic forum in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Sharon revealed that his government has continued to talk to lower level Palestinian officials, despite the past months of escalating violence.

Mr. Sharon said Israel is ready to resume peace negotiations once the new Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia is ready. The Israeli leader predicted that a breakthrough may be near. As he put it, "we may be on the verge of entering a path of peace and quiet."

Mr. Sharon's spokesman, Ranaan Gissin, tells VOA the contacts are aimed at reviving some previous initiatives.

"The contacts are to see how we can move forward, based on plans that we had in the past of handing over control to the Palestinians in various areas where they will institute their forces, and take the necessary measures to restore law and order, to fight terrorism," he said. "And, clearly, all these plans that we offered in the past are being offered again. But this time, I would say, in such a manner to ensure their success."

Mr. Gissin says lessons were learned from the past, when talks with former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, failed to stem violence.

This past week, the Sharon government's treatment of the Palestinians came under harsh criticism from top echelons of the Israeli military, in particular from Army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon. Some in the military believe the strict blockades, curfews and restrictions on Palestinians have been counter-productive, and, instead of boosting security for Israelis, have only increased Palestinian desperation, anger and support for militant groups.

In the past, Israeli officials criticized former Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas for refusing to dismantle militant organizations, such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and for drawing them into a dialogue. The man named as his successor, Ahmed Qureia, is currently trying to do much the same thing.

Sharon spokesman Ranaan Gissin says there is no contradiction in Israel's willingness to resume a dialogue. He says Mr. Qureia's current dealings with the militants is an internal Palestinian matter.

"If he wants to deal in that manner, we'll give him more time," said Ranaan Gissin. "We'll give him the opportunity to set up his regime, to gain support. Of course, he will be judged finally by performance, what his government is capable of doing in stopping terrorist activity."

Prime Minister Sharon's prediction of a possible breakthrough toward peace comes amid alternative grassroots peace initiatives promoted by teams of Israelis and Palestinians.

There is the so-called Geneva Accord, drawn up by a group of Israeli and Palestinian former ministers, opposition leaders, academics and peace activists. There is a grassroots initiative put together by well-known Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh and former Israeli Admiral Ami Ayalon.

Yuli Tamir is a former Israeli minister, and was on the Israeli team for the Geneva agreement. She is skeptical of Mr. Sharon's prediction of a breakthrough, and says he is acting under pressure.

"I think, it's the clear consequence of the pressure that comes from the grassroots demand to do something, whether it's the Geneva initiative, the Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh initiative, the Peace Now demonstrations together with the very clear voice that comes now from the army," she said. "Put all of that together, and it seems that gives [Sharon] a reason to talk about an initiative."

Mr. Sharon's government has come out against the Geneva initiative, and insists the only plan on the table is the internationally backed road map toward peace. That plan, formally inaugurated by President Bush in June, outlines a step-by-step approach for an end to violence and for an independent Palestinian state by 2005. The plan has gone almost nowhere, and reprisals and recriminations continue.