Sharon Heads to Washington

Sunday, March 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon headed Sunday to the United States for talks with President Bush as Israel and the Palestinians appeared to resume security contacts that have broken down during six months of fighting.

Israel said Avi Dichter, chief of Israel's internal security service, met Amin el-Hindi, head of the Palestinian intelligence service, late Saturday night. Abdel Razek Majaida, the head of Palestinian public security, denied the meeting was held.

For their part, Israeli officials were quick to note that the meeting did not constitute a resumption of peace talks.

``There are no political negotiations,'' said Israeli lawmaker Moshe Arens of Sharon's Likud party. ``There will not be as long as there is violence on the ground.''

Sharon is expected to take this message to the White House when he and Bush meet Tuesday for the first time since they took office.

Sharon, who won a landslide victory over incumbent Ehud Barak last month on a platform that Israel would not conduct peace negotiations ``under fire,'' said he has a two-stage plan: first, calm must be restored to the region, and only then will he consider a return to the negotiating table.

``Israel is united behind the goals of peace and security,'' Sharon said in a departure ceremony Sunday before leaving for Washington. ``The Jewish people are a peace-seeking people.''

Sharon adviser Zalmon Shoval, formerly Israel's ambassador to the United States, said the prime minister will present the Israeli position to Bush that negotiations could resume from the point reached in signed agreements such as the 1998 Wye River accord.

The Palestinians insist that talks resume where they left off in January under the previous Israeli government led by Ehud Barak. Barak's negotiating team had offered the Palestinians a state in about 95 percent of the West Bank, plus the Gaza Strip, as well as control of Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.

But Barak refused to give them sovereignty over a key Jerusalem shrine and said that Palestinian war refugees would not be allowed to return to Israel. The Palestinians rejected the offer as insufficient.

Sharon, meanwhile, has suggested that he would not offer the Palestinians territory beyond what they already control — about 42 percent of West Bank and most of Gaza Strip. Sharon rules out concessions in Jerusalem and maintains that Israel bears no moral or economic responsibility for the Palestinian refugees.

Shoval said the Israeli and U.S. administrations had similar approaches — they both want to see calm restored to the region.

Palestinian lawmaker Ziyad Abu Ziyad said for Sharon to make any headway he must stop placing all the blame on the Palestinians.

``He needs to speak in concrete terms of how to extract the region from the cycle of bloodshed and how to return to the path of talks and solution to the conflict,'' Abu Ziyad told Israel radio.

Sharon warned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over the weekend that further easing of a security closure imposed on Palestinian areas since the violence began would not be possible until the Palestinians crack down on terror.

Israel has accused a regional commander of Arafat's bodyguard unit, Force 17, of masterminding a squad that has carried out attacks against Israelis, killing eight. Israel has arrested three Palestinian gunmen it said belonged to the squad.

Since the fighting began last September, 428 people have been killed including 352 Palestinians, 57 Israeli Jews, and 19 others.