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Sharon Could Meet Abbas Next Week

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he will meet soon with his new Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, but the Israeli leader also set a condition for moving ahead with the latest international peace plan.

In an interview with Israel Radio, Prime Minister Sharon said contacts are under way to arrange a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas. Israeli sources say that meeting could take place next week.

Mr. Sharon said his talks with Mr. Abbas would focus on security, getting the Palestinians to halt attacks against Israel and anti-Israeli incitement.

But in the interview, Mr. Sharon also set a condition for moving ahead with the road map. He said Israel could not move forward with the process, and accept an independent Palestinian state, if the Palestinians do not give up their demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

Some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out when the state of Israel was created in 1948. They and their descendants now number close to four million. Mr. Sharon said to allow them to return to their original homes, inside Israel, would be a recipe for the destruction of Israel.

Prime Minister Abbas says he looks forward to meeting with Mr. Sharon, but he has also said he cannot give up the right of return. The 'right of return' has been a cornerstone of Palestinian policy and demands for decades and Palestinian officials say the issue must at least be negotiated.

The peace plan, which was drawn up by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia calls for a series of steps by both sides to halt violence, ease Israeli restrictions on Palestinian areas, and move toward negotiations that would culminate in a final peace agreement and in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

The Palestinians have said they accept the roadmap and have called for its immediate implementation. Israel has voiced reservations and said it wants changes before the proposals are implemented.

Mr. Sharon has sent envoys to Washington to press Israel's case. He is also expected to bring up the subject when he meets later this week with Secretary of State Colin Powell and during a meeting with President Bush which could take place in Washington later this month.

Mr. Sharon's opposition to the Palestinian "right of return," and many other differences between the two sides, cast a shadow over the prospect of success for the roadmap. Palestinians accuse Mr. Sharon of trying to sabotage the peace plan and are calling for the United States to put pressure on Israel.

They are also disappointed with American diplomatic efforts to promote the road map. Middle East envoy William Burns held talks with both sides several days ago. He told Mr. Abbas that the United States is committed to the plan, but Palestinian officials say he also made it clear that Washington is not going to pressure Israel.