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Arafat Welcomes High-Level Contacts With Israel

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — shunned by the Israeli government for more than a year — on Saturday welcomed the renewal of high-level contacts between the two sides and called for additional talks.

But a senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the U.S.-backed proposal for relaunching full-fledged negotiations had been put on hold until Israel forms a new government, a process expected to take several weeks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held secret talks Wednesday with Ahmed Qureia, a leading Palestinian negotiator, raising the possibility that the sides could make a new push to end more than two years of fighting.

The meeting was Sharon's first with a top Palestinian figure in about a year, and Israel's Channel Two television said more contacts were expected in the coming week.

Still, previous talks have failed to produce a breakthrough, and Sharon has refused to meet Arafat, accusing him of encouraging violence. Sharon has called Arafat's removal a prerequisite for restarting peace talks with the Palestinians. The negotiations collapsed two years ago, shortly before Sharon was elected prime minister.

Arafat, meanwhile, said the Palestinians were ready to restart talks.

"There is a decision within the Palestinian leadership to continue talks with the Israelis," Arafat told reporters at his battered headquarters in Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem. "We are ready for any talks as long as this might lead us to peace."

Arafat called on Sharon to restart talks after Sharon's Likud party won a convincing election victory on Jan. 28. Sharon refused, but only days later he met with Qureia.

"You have to remember that I asked Sharon to resume negotiations with me and he rejected this," Arafat said. "This was just a few days after he won the elections."

If the sides resume formal talks, they are expected to focus on the U.S.-backed "road map," which calls for both sides to take a series of steps away from confrontation and violence, and envisions a full-fledged Palestinian state by 2005.

But to the disappointment of the Palestinians, the plan is on hold until Sharon forms a government, Erekat said.

"I call on the world community to focus on ways to revive the peace process in the region, and not on war in Iraq," Erekat said.

Sharon has up to six weeks to establish a coalition, and wants a broad, national-unity government. But if he cannot persuade moderate parties to join him, he may be left with a collection of right-wing and religious parties that oppose concessions to the Palestinians and demand even tougher Israeli military actions.

Palestinian officials said the Sharon-Qureia meeting on Wednesday lasted less than two hours, and centered on a possible cease-fire. Israeli officials confirmed only that the meeting took place, and covered the current conflict.

Qureia, 65, also known as Abu Ala, was a key negotiator in failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He is a close Arafat associate and has maintained ties with Israeli leaders.

Shimon Peres, Israel's former foreign minister, welcomed the talks.

"I think tomorrow morning we can start talking with Palestinian officials," Peres told Israel's Army radio. He said that the Palestinian uprising "is not just the enemy of the Israelis, but the enemy of the Palestinians as well."

Meanwhile, the Israeli army on Saturday demolished the West Bank homes of two Palestinians who carried out a shooting attack this week that left two Israeli soldiers dead, soldiers said.

The shooting took place Wednesday night against the Israeli soldiers at an army post on Mount Gerizim, overlooking the Palestinian city of Nablus. The two Palestinian gunmen, Anan Hani and Ahmed Hamad, were also killed in the firefight.

Early Saturday, the army tore down the home of Hani, where nine people were living, and the house of Hamad, were seven people were living, witnesses said. The men lived in two villages just outside Nablus.

The Israeli military has torn down dozens of homes belonging to militants as part of an effort to discourage future attacks. Palestinians denounce the policy as collective punishment.

Also, the army tore down eight houses in Rafah, in the southern Gaza strip, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said. In Rafah, the army has demolished many homes used by militants as cover to fire on nearby Israeli forces.