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'If Sharon is Ready for Talks, I'm Ready,' says Arafat - 2003-01-29

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says he is willing to meet immediately with newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, in an effort to revive peace talks. But Mr. Sharon has rebuffed the offer, accusing Mr. Arafat of terrorism against Israelis.

Mr. Arafat told Israeli television Wednesday that he respected democracy and the right of Israeli citizens to elect Mr. Sharon for a second term.

The Palestinian leader says he is willing to meet Mr. Sharon at a moment's notice in a bid to end more than two years of bloody conflict.

"If he [Mr. Sharon] is ready, I'm ready. We insist on returning to negotiations as soon as possible," he said.

One of Mr. Arafat's close aides, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, appealed Wednesday to Israel to resume peace talks, beginning where they had left off under the former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak.

"Officially I would like to reiterate what President Arafat said about inviting the Israeli Government, that would be formed to resume negotiations where they left off in Taba, [Egypt] in 2001," he said.

But Mr. Sharon is unlikely to accept such conditions and has also immediately rejected Mr. Arafat's offer of a meeting.

In a statement issued by his office, the Prime Minister said that Mr. Arafat, who he says continues to finance, initiate, operate and dispatch terror, will not be a partner for negotiations.

Mr. Sharon says that Israel is keen to seek peace with the Palestinians but will only speak to those who are, in his words, not involved in terror in any way, shape or form.

Relations between Israel and the Palestinians reached their lowest point during Mr. Sharon's first term in office.

In December 2001, Mr. Sharon's cabinet banned any direct contacts with Mr. Arafat, holding him accountable for failing to prevent the dramatic rise in Palestinian terrorism against Israeli citizens.

Some members of Mr. Sharon's Likud Party want Mr. Arafat expelled from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But Mr. Sharon has refrained from sending the Palestinian leader into exile, fearing that this could anger the U.S. administration and moderate Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The Egyptian leader telephoned Mr. Sharon Wednesday to congratulate him on his election victory.

Mr. Sharon's office says their conversation focused on the need to revive the peace process and Mr. Mubarak invited Mr. Sharon to Cairo for the first time.