Mideast Meeting In The Works

With a Palestinian political crisis resolved, Palestinian and Israeli officials said Thursday they expect their leaders to meet for peace talks — possibly within 10 days.

Such a summit could help end months of deadlock over implementation of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, said Thursday he is ready for a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, but only if it yields results.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom countered that Israel would not compromise on its demand that the Palestinians dismantle the terrorist groups.

Qureia Thursday criticized Israel's continued travel restrictions in many Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "If Israel respects our people and our president and lifts the siege and closure, I think the road will be open for this government to be successful," Qureia said after the first meeting of his Cabinet.

The Cabinet was sworn in Wednesday, in a ceremony that ended two months of political wrangling over control of the Palestinian security forces.

Shalom told Israel Army Radio that he expects Qureia and Sharon to meet within 10 days. Israeli media said the meeting would likely take place after Sharon returns from a trip to Italy early next week.

Shalom said he has already prepared a "positive agenda" that he hopes to implement quickly. He said the plan is "meant to ease on the Palestinians and the Israelis" and lead to substantive negotiations.

The closures have prevented many Palestinians from moving between cities and kept them from reaching schools, offices and hospitals. Israel says the closures are needed to prevent attacks on its cities.

Qureia, meanwhile, disclosed that an international donors conference scheduled in Rome next Tuesday has been postponed until Dec. 12. He did not give a reason for the delay, saying only it was "acceptable." The international community sends about $1 billion a year to the Palestinians. The funds are used for humanitarian projects and help prop up the Palestinian Authority, which would otherwise cease to function.

The Palestinian finance minister, Salam Fayad, had stayed home for several days in protest over the deadlock between Qureia and Arafat. Fayad will be the key figure at the conference, presenting the Palestinian budget for 2004.

Qureia's new Cabinet took office late Wednesday after receiving a vote of confidence from the parliament. The approval ended a two-month vacuum that followed the resignation of Qureia's predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, on Sept. 6.

Qureia and Arafat, addressing parliament before the vote, blamed Israel for the violence, but called for an end to the bloodshed.

Qureia called for a cease-fire and quick implementation of the "road map", which calls for a halt to violence and a series of steps leading to an independent Palestinian state in 2005.

In the meantime, it requires Palestinians to dismantle violent groups and the Israelis to halt settlement construction in the West Bank — steps neither has taken.

Speaking to Canadian fund-raisers Wednesday evening, Sharon repeated a peace offer to the Palestinians, although he did not refer directly to the new Cabinet.

"We are prepared to make painful compromises for the sake of real peace," he said, but ruled out compromises over security issues. He did not elaborate.

Arafat's presence as the power behind the Qureia government troubled both Israel and the United States. They had called for sidelining Arafat and turning authority over to Qureia and his government.

Qureia only succeeded in forming a Cabinet after leaving Arafat with control over security forces. Israel has accused Arafat of supporting terrorism and has demanded that Palestinian security forces be consolidated under one authority.

While still opposed to Arafat, the Israelis appeared open to prospects of accommodation with the new Palestinian government, possibly reflecting public impatience with the Sharon's government's inability to restore calm.

In another development, a Palestinian was sent from the West Bank to Gaza by the military. Moshref Bethor arrived in Gaza early Thursday, Palestinians said, the second Palestinian to be expelled this week.

Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had agreed to go to Gaza for two years instead of serving time in jail. But Bethor told The Associated Press he had no idea he was being taken to Gaza. He said he thought he was being taken to a different detention facility for further questioning.

To many Palestinians, expulsion from their land, even to an area under Palestinian control, is a punishment more severe than imprisonment.

Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, visiting Washington, proposed to build an industrial area for the Palestinians on the edges of the West Bank border, a ministry spokeswoman said. The plan would provide some 120,000 jobs for Palestinians, she said.

The idea, she said, is to improve the economic situation of the Palestinians and improve Israeli security. Israel has a similar industrial zone along the border with Gaza.

If the proposal wins American support, the spokeswoman said, Israel would present it to the Palestinians. There were no details on how the Americans reacted.