Israel offers peace talks

Proposal by Sharon unexpected, seen as a major turnaround

`Tenet Plan' advocated

Bid is later retracted after Palestinians stipulate conditions

March 17, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian officials rejected an unexpected proposal last night by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to immediately begin face-to-face talks to arrange a cease-fire.

Nevertheless, Sharon's apparent willingness to meet with his Palestinian counterparts is a major turnaround for the hard-line leader, who just two weeks ago launched the nation's largest military operation in two decades with the goal of bombing the Palestinians into submission.

Though U.S. diplomats played down the development, saying such a meeting would be premature, it comes at a significant time -- as U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni shuttles between the warring sides to work out a cease-fire.

Sharon's office apparently acted hastily in issuing the announcement, which implied that senior Palestinian leaders had agreed to sit with Sharon, though no such commitment had been obtained or sought.

Less than an hour after sending the first news release, which appeared to be a significant breakthrough toward ending the nearly 18-month-long conflict, Sharon was forced to issue a retraction saying, "No decision has been made on holding a meeting."

The sticking point is Israeli troops' occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The army pulled out of several Palestinian areas Friday, including the central West Bank city of Ramallah, but remains entrenched in others.

Palestinian officials say they will not meet with Israel until the troops are gone. Israel says it will not move the troops until the Palestinians prove they can prevent terror attacks from the areas under siege.

Officials in Sharon's office blamed the miscue on a poorly translated news release. Others involved in the decision said Sharon and Zinni had agreed to the meeting, but Sharon's office made it public before consulting with the Palestinians. After learning of their preconditions, Sharon was forced to publicly retreat.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters last night that the next step is up to the Palestinians. "The day the Palestinians will inform us that they can stop the shooting and be in charge, we would do what we did in the past -- we shall redeploy the army," he said. "We've said all the time that we don't intend to remain in Palestinian-controlled areas."

Sharon had repeatedly vowed not to negotiate under fire, but he is ready to lead peace talks, though a cease-fire has not been implemented.

Step-by-step plan

The prime minister said he wants to move quickly to the "Tenet Plan," a series of steps developed by CIA Director George J. Tenet last summer to help move the two sides toward peace. The plan has been dormant since it was published in July and agreed to by both sides.

The plan calls for Israel to pull its military back to positions it held before the Palestinian uprising began, a "cooling-off" period, and a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It also requires the Palestinians to arrest militants, dismantle extremist groups and stop inciting violence.

Since Zinni arrived Thursday night, violence has dropped significantly. He is scheduled to hold more meetings today.

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Embassy said Zinni discussed "many ideas and proposals ... but no decisions have been taken on the next steps."

On Friday, after his first meeting with Arafat, Zinni told reporters that he was upbeat about his chances: "I sensed everyone is committed to get out of this terrible situation."

But Zinni has failed twice in the past five months. His first visit was marred by a series of deadly suicide bombings and other attacks, and his second came days after Israel seized a shipload of arms destined to go to the Palestinian Authority.

President Bush sent the retired general on his latest visit Thursday as violence has escalated to unprecedented levels and militant groups have vowed revenge despite the latest efforts from America.

Zinni has been frustrated by Arafat's inability or unwillingness to arrest members of terror groups. But Bush is angry with Sharon for launching the recent military offensive. The United States has demanded that Sharon withdraw troops from all Palestinian areas.

For the past 15 days, the Israeli army has bombed and raided Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps in an unrelenting campaign that claimed more than 170 Palestinian lives. During that period, more than 60 Israelis were killed, including many in suicide bombings and shooting attacks.

Peres, who opposed the recent military operations, said the intense fighting during the past two weeks "showed the very costly results. There is a feeling across the board that we have to go from shooting to talking."

Even if another terror attack occurs, Israel will continue to negotiate as long as Arafat cracks down on the groups responsible, he said.

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