Sharon Drops Key Peace-Talk Demand

Israel signaled flexibility and openness toward the emerging new Palestinian leadership Friday, with a top adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying peace talks could resume if the Palestinians showed some good will.

The adviser, Raanan Gissin (search), spoke a day after Sharon indicated he is dropping a key demand for resuming peace talks — a Palestinian crackdown on militant groups.

Sharon said that while he still wants the armed groups dismantled at some point, he now considers Palestinian efforts to stop incitement against Israel a sufficient first step.

"Israel is ready to move forward," Gissin said. "The first business is stop the industry of hatred ... it doesn't require troops. Then, gradually, we can move toward security coordination."

Palestinians have refused to confront the militants, saying they fear civil war, and the standoff was one of the key obstacles in resuming negotiations.

Asked about Sharon's remarks, interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) said the issue of how to handle the militants would have to be raised in future contacts with Israel.

"We have our share to do, but they [the Israelis] have more," he said Friday.

Sharon's conciliatory tone comes amid international efforts to restart the peace process in a spirit of hope after Yasser Arafat's (search) death last week.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) urged the United States to implement the "road map" peace plan by 2005, as originally planned, arguing the new four-year timeframe suggested by President Bush will give Israel time to grab more land in the disputed West Bank.

Qureia told The Associated Press he will ask that Palestinians be granted statehood within 13 months. The demand would be raised in meetings with Secretary of State Colin Powell and other peace plan sponsors next week.

"We'll tell him that the four years ... mentioned by President Bush to establish a Palestinian state will encourage the Israeli government to continue stealing our lands to build settlements and the wall," he said. "It is very dangerous."

The Palestinians want concrete proposals to come out of the sessions with Powell and other foreign ministers. The peace plan initially called for a Palestinian state by 2005.

"We want a timeline to implement the 'road map' which the United States should be committed to," he said.

Palestinian officials said Powell would arrive Monday for talks in the West Bank town of Jericho. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was expected Wednesday and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos on Dec. 2.

In the Gaza Strip, Abbas held several days of meetings with rival factions, including the largest Islamic militant group, Hamas, to agree to a cease-fire in the run-up to the Jan. 9 election of a Palestinian Authority president.

Abbas said the meetings went well, although it remains unclear whether he won any assurances from militants.

"The weapons chaos should be stopped," Abbas told Palestine TV. "I believe that all the officials and all the people here feel the responsibility and feel the need to control the armed people, because it is not in anyone's interest."

Abbas has rejected demands by Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search) to also hold legislative and municipal elections on Jan. 9. The militants are not fielding candidates in the presidential elections but expect to do well in legislative and municipal votes.

In a gesture to the opposition groups, Abbas' Fatah movement said it would push for municipal and legislative elections by June. It is not clear whether Hamas and Islamic Jihad accepted the compromise.

Arafat's death has opened up the political arena, encouraging even independents and political outsiders to run for president.

The candidates planning to announce bids starting Saturday include planning to announce bids are Sheik Talal Sidr, a former Hamas leader who joined forces with Arafat in 1996, and Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political science professor and anti-corruption crusader.

In Fatah, meanwhile, Abbas' nomination as presidential candidate is not assured.

The old guard of politicians led by Abbas is being challenged by younger activists demanding a share of power after being excluded under Arafat. The young guard is led by Marwan Barghouti, an uprising leader jailed by Israel who could run for president anyway.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio on Friday that Israel would keep its distance until a new Palestinian leadership has emerged.

In an apparent reference to Abbas and Qureia, two pragmatists who oppose violence, Shalom said: "I don't think they are really interested in contacts with Israel before the new chairman is elected. ... That could harm their chances of being elected or even their chances of staying alive."

Shalom said any Israeli gestures to the Palestinians, including an easing of strict travel bans in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, also would have to wait until after Palestinian elections.

Sharon, meanwhile, indicated he is ready to drop a key precondition for peace talks — the dismantling of Palestinian militant groups.

Such a crackdown is listed as one of the Palestinian obligations in the "road map" peace plan, launched in 2003 but never implemented. Abbas and Qureia have said they would not confront the militants but would try to persuade them to disarm. Israel also failed to meet its basic obligations, including a settlement freeze.

Sharon said Thursday that Israel would insist the militants be disarmed eventually. However, he said there were two demands he would insist the Palestinians implement immediately.

"One is the cessation of poisonous propaganda and continuing incitement in the Palestinian television and media, second a drastic change in the Palestinian educational system, ending incitement and demonization of Israel, the Israelis and the Jews," he said.