WASHINGTON - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged yesterday to cooperate with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and work to release more Palestinian prisoners but warned that peace would not come unless terrorist attacks end.
In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby group, Sharon said his administration would help Abbas "as long as we do not risk our security."
The Palestinian leader is to meet with President Bush at the White House tomorrow and is expected to seek assurances that Israel will carry out its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank beginning in August, and stop building settlements in the West Bank.
This is the first White House meeting with a Palestinian leader since 2000, when talks for statehood collapsed amid violence that the Bush administration blamed on Yasser Arafat.
Sharon told a largely supportive audience of around 4,500 American Jews, "We see great opportunities in the election of Chairman Mahmoud Abbas."
But he quickly added that peace is impossible unless the Palestinian Authority dismantles terrorist organizations and their infrastructure.
Back at home, a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security officials ended inconclusively late Monday after they failed to agree on coordinating Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.
Palestinian officials warned of chaos if Israel does not show more flexibility on security issues ahead of the withdrawal.
But Sharon called security the "red line," emphasizing that Israel would do nothing to compromise it.
He said major Jewish settlements in the West Bank would remain "an integral part of the state of Israel" in any final settlement with the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority wants Israel to pull out of these areas.
Sharon said he has paid a heavy political price for promoting the withdrawal plan in the face of opposition from right-wing Israelis and settlers. But he said the pullout has international support and has improved the status of Israel.