Sharon, Abbas tell their people that peace process will pay off

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM - The ceremony was painstakingly rehearsed. Two leaders - the Israeli with a state and the Palestinian trying to get one - stood side by side yesterday and told their skeptical publics that diplomacy, not warfare, would lead to a better future.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, never wavered from prepared texts that were scripted down to the last syllable and delivered at Sharon's Jerusalem office in a setting designed for television.

Each gave assurances that he wants peace and said the violence should end. Appearing relaxed at lecterns set up under a tarp to block the sun, but without a single flag, they smiled and made eye contact, giving the appearance of a friendly chat between the best of friends.

But they really were addressing a far wider audience, one watching live on Israeli and Arab television, to give assurances that a peace plan they embarked on last month is making progress toward a state for Palestinians and a life free of suicide bombings and other attacks against Israelis.

To highlight the new cooperative spirit, seven Israeli and Palestinian Cabinet ministers sat at the dais, representing the heads of new joint committees that are to advance the initiative known as the "road map" and negotiate issues such as prisoner releases, trade, security and preventing incitement to violence.

The Palestinian security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, sat between two of his ostensible enemies - Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Cabinet Minister Ehud Olmert - and the three appeared to speak amicably, often laughing and playfully grabbing at each other's arms.

Later, Sharon and Abbas disappeared inside for a private meeting, their third since April. It was the first time that a Palestinian leader had held a public ceremony at the Israeli prime minister's office. Yasser Arafat met with several Israeli leaders over the past decade, at their homes and at checkpoints, but never at the prime minister's office.

Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said the venue was chosen to deliver the message that nearly a month after a summit in Jordan initiated by President Bush, the sides have started the real work outlined in the peace plan.

"Before, we had birth pains," Gissin said. "Now, we have to declare the birth of the baby. I think it's obvious that both sides wanted to show, both to their people as well to the other parties involved in this process, that they are sincere."

Sharon repeated his pledge that he would never "compromise with terror" but also addressed himself to Palestinians: "I tell you, we have no quarrel with you. We have no desire to control you or dictate your fate. We want to live side by side with you in peace, as good neighbors, helping and respecting each other."

Abbas directed his closing remarks to Israelis: "Every day that passes without an agreement is a lost opportunity. Every human soul that perishes is a human tragedy. Enough suffering, enough death and enough pain."

A cease-fire announced Sunday by three Palestinian militant groups continued in force. Only a scattering of shootings were reported, including one in which Israeli soldiers killed a gunmen who they said opened fire at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Tulkarm.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers completed their pullback and Palestinian police worked to secure the areas. Meanwhile, the Israeli army began preparing for their withdrawal from the West Bank city of Bethlehem, which officials said would be completed today. Soldiers were seen loading boxes on trucks and lining up armored vehicles for the procession out of the city.

As in Gaza, Palestinian security officials in Bethlehem met with departing Israeli commanders and pored over maps to discuss the redeployment. Unlike Gaza, Bethlehem is not fenced in, and Palestinian police will be expected to prevent suicide bombers from reaching Israel and gunmen from firing on Jerusalem's Jewish suburb of Gilo.

The army withdrawals are among the first significant tests of the peace plan. If they work, Israeli forces could withdraw from other West Bank cities. The Palestinians want Ramallah, where Arafat is confined to his presidential compound, to be next.

But Abbas is hesitant to confront Palestinian militant groups, preferring instead to rely on the cease-fire and hoping that it lasts long enough to prompt concessions from the Israelis that translate into practical gains that give people a renewed belief in the political process.

Israeli leaders, along with U.S. officials, are pressing Abbas to dismantle militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Avi Dichter, the head of Israel's domestic security service, said yesterday that Palestinian authorities have three weeks to demonstrate that they are serious about ending violence.

Speaking at a seminar at Tel Aviv University, Dichter said that Abbas must confiscate illegal weapons or further withdrawals from Palestinian cities would be put on hold.

"We will not move on to transfer responsibility for the West Bank before it becomes totally clear that in Gaza the process of disarming terror groups has begun," Dichter said.

Security issues topped the agenda of the meeting between Sharon and Abbas last night. Cabinet ministers met separately to set up committees, a throwback to joint groups that routinely met before the outbreak of violence in September 2000.

In attendance was Hisham Abdal Raziq, the Palestinian minister in charge of prisoner affairs. Palestinian officials have put the release of up to 6,000 prisoners arrested by Israel over the past 33 months at the top of their agenda.

Sharon has freed a handful and indicated that he might release more. Gissin said a committee would be established to make recommendations.

Also, Israel radio reported last night that Sharon told Abbas that Arafat, who has been confined to his headquarters in Ramallah for more than a year, would be allowed to travel to Gaza.

The Israeli army occupies Ramallah but is no longer positioned at Arafat's front door. Officials have said that Arafat is free to travel but have given no guarantees that he would be allowed to return. Arafat has refrained even from venturing across the city.

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