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Sharon Signals Continued Contacts with Palestinians - 2002-02-03

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has signaled that he is likely to hold more meetings with top Palestinian officials despite objections from Jewish settler groups. His comments followed his face-to-face talks last week with Palestinian Authority leaders, the first such discussions since he came to power nearly a year ago.

Mr. Sharon told his Cabinet that his first-ever high-level contacts with senior Palestinian officials were not a sign of a change of strategy in what he described as Israel's "fight against terror."

He was speaking after the disclosure that he had met with three leading Palestinian figures at his Jerusalem residence last week.

Mr. Sharon confirmed that he had candid discussions with the deputy head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmed Qurei'a, and Mohammed Rashid, who is in charge of economic policy and financial affairs in the office of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Leaders of the Jewish settler movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip accused the prime minister of breaking his pledge not to negotiate under fire.

Mr. Sharon says the discussions focused on reaching a cease-fire to end more than 16 months of Israeli-Palestinian clashes that have left more than 1,000 dead and thousands more injured.

Israeli newspapers printed extensive reports of the conversations.

According to the Israeli media, the Palestinian officials demanded that Israel stop its policy of targeted killings of Palestinians suspected of planning or involvement in attacks against Jews.

Mr. Sharon replied that he would do so only if the Palestinian Authority made a serious effort to halt terrorism. He also emphasized that the most the Palestinian Authority could expect from Israel at this stage was a long-term interim agreement.

Mr. Sharon said he rejected a plan drafted by Mr. Queri'a and the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, which calls for a Palestinian state to be established in the Gaza Strip and 42 percent of the West Bank, after which talks would begin on the final boundaries.

Overshadowing the meeting was the position of Mr. Arafat, who remains under virtual house arrest in his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

Mr. Sharon told the senior Palestinian officials that Mr. Arafat would not be allowed to travel until he arrests and hands over those responsible for the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi at a hotel in Jerusalem last October.