Sharon calls Arab leader after victory

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Mahmoud Abbas yesterday to congratulate him on his victory in the Palestinian presidential elections, renewing top-level contacts severed during the current conflict.

Sharon told the first meeting of his revamped Cabinet, which now includes the dovish Labor Party, that he expects to meet Abbas soon.

Sharon's phone call to Abbas, along with another congratulatory call from Israeli President Moshe Katzav, reflects the changed Israeli attitude toward the Palestinian leadership since the death of Yasser Arafat, who Sharon boycotted and accused of abetting terrorism.

Abbas won a landslide victory in elections Sunday for president of the Palestinian Authority.

A statement from Sharon's office said that in his conversation with Abbas, he "congratulated him on his personal achievement and his victory in the elections and wished him success," and that they "agreed to continue their dialogue in the future."

Maher Shalabi, an adviser to Abbas, said the two leaders talked about reviving peace efforts and that arrangements for a meeting would be made in the next few days.

Sharon said the meeting would focus "first and foremost on the security issue and the Palestinians' actions against terrorism and its infrastructure," an Israeli Cabinet statement said.

However Abbas has spoken about resuming broader political negotiations according to the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said that he did not expect a meeting with Sharon to take place for at least two weeks and that Abbas, after being sworn in, would focus first on forming a Cabinet, streamlining the Palestinian security services and starting talks on a cease-fire with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Shaath said Abbas is expected to go to the Gaza Strip late this week for discussions with the militant factions and that a cease-fire was "the first priority on his mind."

After a lull during the elections, militants resumed attacks yesterday, firing several mortar rounds at Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and a primitive Kassam rocket at the town of Sederot in southern Israel, the army said. No one was hurt in the attacks, but an Israeli wounded last week in the shelling of a Gaza settlement died in an Israeli hospital.

During his election campaign, Abbas angered militants when he labeled the rocket attacks "useless" and said they harm the Palestinians because they trigger Israeli reprisals.

The militants have stepped up their shelling in recent weeks, seeking to portray a planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as a retreat under fire.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, said the group is seeking "common understandings" with Abbas, but would not halt its attacks.

A meeting yesterday of the Palestinian National Security Council discussed the consolidation of the security forces created by Arafat, Shaath said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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