JERUSALEM - Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said yesterday that there was no point in holding talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unless Israel halts construction of a much-criticized security wall.
But Israel - which has sharply rebuffed international calls to stop building the barrier, made of concrete blocks, razor-wire fencing, watchtowers, trenches and motion sensors - expressed renewed determination to move ahead with the construction.
Israeli officials also said that Sharon would not agree to Palestinian demands as a condition to a meeting between the two leaders.
While Qureia has spoken strongly against the security barrier's construction, his comments marked the most explicit linkage he has made between the status of the fence and prospects for face-to-face talks between him and Sharon.
"If the Israeli government says it will continue building the wall ... then there is no need for any meetings," Qureia told journalists in the West Bank town of Ramallah after a meeting of the Palestinian Cabinet.
But he softened that statement by adding: "I am not saying this is a pre-condition, but I want serious positions."
Israel, smarting from condemnation of the barrier Friday by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, repeated its assertion that the wall, envisioned to run the 425-mile length of the West Bank, is a necessary means of defense against Palestinian attacks, including suicide bombings.
Annan's criticism was "a reward for all who use terror as a means to realize their political aims," the Foreign Ministry said yesterday in a statement.
When Qureia's full Cabinet was sworn in this month - nearly two months after he took office with a skeleton government - Israel and the Palestinians said they expected a meeting of Qureia and Sharon within days. But that early, optimistic talk has not come to fruition.
Qureia had met Sharon on several occasions in his capacity as speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, but a first formal session by the two prime ministers is considered essential to restarting talks on the American-backed peace plan known as the "road map."
In advance of any talks, both leaders have been mindful of their respective domestic audiences. Sharon has dropped hints that he might consider evacuating Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, but he has also warned the Palestinians that if they don't move quickly toward deal making, he might move to annex large West Bank settlements.
Qureia is trying not to fall into the same trap as his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, who traveled to Jerusalem to talk with Sharon within two weeks of taking office.
Successive talks between the two leaders yielded no substantial concessions for Abbas to show to the Palestinian public, and he quickly became the target of his people's frustration and fury over the hardships of Israeli occupation. That angry public sentiment, coupled with a power struggle with Yasser Arafat, drove Abbas to resign.
Qureia is maneuvering especially carefully in advance of Egyptian-mediated talks in the coming week with Palestinian militant factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The militant factions were among the first to denounce Abbas as too soft on Israel, and Qureia does not want to give them an early excuse to do the same to him.
Officials on both sides say privately that there is little reason to believe that Israel will meet Qureia's demands for a halt to building the wall, but Sharon could take immediate steps to sweeten any agreement to meet. High on the list would be the lifting of tight military restrictions on Palestinians' movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Qureia traveled to Jordan yesterday for his first talks with senior American envoy William Burns. Despite a strong sense among the Palestinian leadership that President Bush has not done nearly enough to follow up on the highly public launching of the "road map" at a summit in April, Palestinian officials continue to believe that only the U.S. administration can apply sufficient pressure to force concessions from Sharon.
"We want the U.S. to be involved with all its efforts in the peace process," Qureia said yesterday. "We hope it is prepared to do that."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.