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Israel, Palestinians Move Forward

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet on Tuesday that he hopes to meet newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the "near future" — the latest sign the two sides are eager to restart peace efforts after years of stalemate.

Since Abbas' landslide victory in a presidential election on Sunday, a sense of optimism has penetrated the region.

In other developments:

  • Sharon's new Cabinet took office late Monday after parliament narrowly approved the coalition in a 58-56 vote. But expressed concern that the government could be toppled while it tries to carry out the prime minister's plan to pull troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip.
  • Hamas militants fired several barrages of mortar bombs and homemade rockets at Israeli towns and Jewish settlements in Gaza Tuesday. No one was wounded, but several buildings — including a synagogue packed with worshippers — were damaged. But an Israeli settler wounded in a Hamas mortar attack 10 days ago died of his wounds Tuesday.
  • Israeli military planners have asked authorities for permission to destroy up to 3,000 Palestinian homes in the southern Gaza Strip to dig a trench meant to halt weapons smuggling through tunnels across the Egyptian border, officials said Tuesday. Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the idea, calling it "a catastrophe and a disaster for the Palestinian people."

    World leaders have urged Israel and the Palestinians to grasp an opportunity presented by the election of a moderate Palestinian leader and the establishment of a new Israeli government that includes the dovish Labor Party.

    Sharon, convening his new Cabinet for the first time on Tuesday, told the ministers he called Abbas to begin arranging a meeting "in the near future." Sharon said the meeting would focus on security issues.

    Israel's ceremonial president, Moshe Katsav, called Abbas Tuesday to congratulate him on his victory and said he hoped the two would be able to meet in the near future. Sources close to Abbas told Haaretz newspaper the conversation was positive and the two leaders agreed to maintain contact.

    Abbas is widely considered more moderate than his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who died on Nov. 11 in a French hospital. Israel refused to negotiate with Arafat, whom it accused of encouraging violence during the past four years of fighting between the two sides.

    Fresh from his victory, Abbas expressed hope late Monday that the sides will be able to return to the negotiating table.

    "We extend our hands to our neighbors," Abbas said at a meeting with international observers who monitored the election. "We are ready for peace, peace based on justice. We hope that their response will be positive."

    Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said plans are still in the early stage. "When the right time comes, we will go for a well-prepared meeting. We will not go just for a meeting, but for a useful one," he said.

    A senior Israeli Defense Ministry official said Tuesday that Israel is ready to hand over to the Palestinians security duties in West Bank cities.

    The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said discussions with the Palestinians on the issue would likely begin in the coming days.

    Israel has had security control over all West Bank cities since launching a large offensive in April 2002 in response to a suicide bombing that killed 29 people in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya.

    Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet on Tuesday that Israel has to "immediately begin negotiations with the Palestinian Authority but at the same time fight terrorism."

    He predicted that Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip, initially envisioned as a unilateral initiative, would be coordinated with the new Palestinian leadership. The pullout is scheduled to begin in July.

    Israel has said progress in peacemaking will be linked to Abbas' ability to take on Palestinian militants.

    The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have expressed a willingness to work with Abbas, but also questioned the strength of his election victory, claiming there was low voter turnout.

    Abbas has criticized the mortar and rocket attacks as ineffective and damaging to the Palestinian cause. But he is reluctant to openly confront the militants, hoping instead to persuade them to accept a cease-fire.

    Palestinian residents of Beit Lahiya, which often bears the brunt of Israeli retaliation, agree.

    "I voted for Abu Mazen [Abbas] only because of his declaration that firing Kassams was stupid; I voted for him because he promised that the screaming of the children would stop," Sana al-Hibel told the Jerusalem Post, adding that it's now time for Abbas to deliver and end the rocket attacks on Israelis.

    Sharon, meanwhile, could face difficulties holding together his fragile coalition long enough to implement his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements by the end of the year.

    Sharon formed the coalition with the dovish Labor Party late Monday after narrowly winning a 58-56 vote in parliament.

    The alliance, backed by several opposition parties, shores up Sharon's parliamentary majority as he pushes forward with the Gaza plan.

    But 13 members of Sharon's own Likud Party who oppose the Gaza pullout voted against the new government in Monday's vote.

    If these Likud "rebels" continue to vote against Sharon, he may not be able to pass his budget. Failure to pass the budget by March would cause the government to collapse and force early elections. The next election is currently scheduled for November 2006.

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