NABLUS, West Bank – Palestinian presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas (search) on Thursday described Israeli leader Ariel Sharon (search) as a partner for peace talks and said he hopes negotiations will resume soon after weekend elections.
Campaigning in the West Bank's largest city, Abbas reached out to Israel after a series of hard-line speeches and appearances with Palestinian gunmen in recent days. Israeli officials welcomed the conciliatory statements.
Also Thursday, Israel's army chief announced that he'll expel officers and soldiers who refuse to participate in a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. The warning came after 34 reserve officers signed a letter urging soldiers not to participate in the pullout.
Abbas, the front-runner in Sunday's election, had come under criticism in Israel this week for a string of incendiary speeches.
But in Nablus, he took a softer approach, criticizing attacks on Israel as counterproductive and calling for a resumption of peace talks with Sharon based on the "road map" plan, which envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"After the elections, we will start negotiations," Abbas said at a news conference. "Ariel Sharon is an elected leader and we will negotiate with him. We will put the road map on the table and say that we are ready to implement it completely."
Israel refused to negotiate with the previous Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat (search), accusing him of involvement in terrorism. Arafat died in a French hospital on Nov. 11.
Abbas is eager to resume peace talks. But on the campaign trail, he has had to overcome his image as a dull bureaucrat and build support among the many Palestinian constituencies, including the young members of the powerful militant groups.
Last week, a smiling Abbas was hoisted on the shoulders of a notorious West Bank gunman. After an Israeli strike killed seven people in the Gaza Strip this week, he described Israel as the "Zionist enemy" — his harshest language yet.
Nablus is a chaotic city where gunmen often roam with impunity. At his news conference, Abbas reiterated that the Palestinian leadership must protect wanted militants from Israel and dismissed U.S. criticism for coddling the gunmen.
"The world should know that those people are part of the Palestinian people and we take care of them," he said. "They have no right to tell us what to do."
However, no gunmen were visible at his campaign appearances in Nablus and Abbas signaled that he does not support violence against Israel.
"Resistance is a Palestinian right, but here the balance of power is broken, so we have to use peaceful means because it is more useful," he said.
Earlier, Abbas told an Israeli daily that his first task after Sunday's election will be to resume peace talks. He also said the Palestinians will cooperate with Israel's planned Gaza withdrawal as long as it is part of the broader road map process.
Israeli officials welcomed the new tone.
"The prime minister has said that immediately after the elections he will meet with whoever gets elected to coordinate security issues, and maybe also to coordinate the disengagement plan," said a senior official.
Sharon initially had refused to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal, known as "unilateral disengagement," with the Palestinians.
Sharon's plan includes a pullout from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements. He has set the withdrawal to begin this summer, but he faces increasing protests from Jewish settlers.
A letter from 34 reserve officers stating that the withdrawal is "totally illegal" and soldiers must not take part in it was the latest sign that widespread insubordination could accompany the Gaza pullout.
The officers belong to a West Bank brigade that largely consists of Jewish settlers.
In response, military chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon summoned the officers for questioning. "Any officer who continues to express the views stated in the letter will be dismissed from his duty and expelled from the Israel Defense Forces," Yaalon said in a statement. Sharon warned Wednesday that the government would act with "all its might" against military dissenters and hard-line protesters who attack soldiers.
Judicial, government and security officials will meet in coming days to discuss available tools in prosecuting extremists.
In fresh Gaza violence, Israeli soldiers killed a Hamas militant who had infiltrated the Jewish settlement of Ganei Tal. The militant opened fire on soldiers patrolling the perimeter of the settlement, the army said.