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Palestinian Negotiator: Sharon Acting for 'Politics Not Peace' - 2002-03-09

Palestinian leaders are reacting coolly to an offer by Israel to resume cease-fire talks even as fighting continues. The offer represents a shift by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had earlier demanded a week of peace before the talks could start.

Prime Minister Sharon has dropped his insistence on seven days of calm before truce talks can begin with the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon has told Israeli television that while Israel is willing to discuss a cease-fire plan, it will fight back hard if Palestinian terrorism continues.

He spoke at the end of the deadliest week of fighting since the Palestinian uprising began in September of 2000. On Friday alone, nearly 40 Palestinians and five Israelis were killed.

The Sharon statement has been received skeptically by the Palestinians.

A spokesman for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says Israel first should end its "massacres." The Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has said Mr. Sharon is motivated by politics, not peace.

"What I believe Sharon is doing is trying to create a balance between what President Bush wants and what his right-wing coalition wants, which is an impossible balance. And the only thing Sharon is doing now is trying to confuse people but the only thing he is doing is exposing himself," Mr. Erekat said.

An Israeli government spokesman has denied this, saying the Sharon announcement is intended to facilitate the work of American Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni, who is due back in the region in a few days.

Vice President Dick Cheney also will visit Israel soon amid concern that continued Middle East violence undermines Arab support for America's war on terrorism.

Mr. Sharon discussed his plan Friday with Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose spokesman had criticized Israel's tactics in the latest fighting as heavy-handed. The State Department also called on Mr. Arafat to do more to stop the violence.

Meanwhile, Israeli air strikes continued Saturday in the West Bank town of Nablus and in the Gaza Strip.