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No Deal

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Tuesday offered to declare a cease-fire if Palestinians stopped shooting, but rejected a freeze on Jewish settlements. Palestinians declined the offer and violence continued.

"I call tonight for a total truce in the area, and I say again here that if the Palestinians accept this proposal to stop the fire, we will immediately stop the fire," Sharon told a televised news conference.

The United States welcomed the offer. "It is vital in order to bring the parties together and to secure peace in the Middle East that the parties in the region, unequivocally, speak out and call for a cessation of the violence," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

But a senior Palestinian official, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, dismissed the proposal, calling Israel the aggressor. "We reject everything Sharon said about a cease-fire," he said.

Sharon's statement came as U.S. diplomats made a multifaceted push to gain implementation of the recommendations of a committee on Middle East violence headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

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A U.S. official said Sharon, U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and U.S. Consul-General Ron Schlicher met for more than two hours "to develop a framework and timetable for implementation of the Mitchell commission" report.

President George W. Bush spoke with Egypt's president and Jordan's king on Tuesday to pitch the plan.

The report, released on Monday, calls for an immediate cessation of violence followed by confidence-building measures and a resumption of security cooperation and peace negotiations. Its most controversial recommendation is a call for a freeze on settlement construction. Settlements on occupied territory violate international law.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has endorsed the committee's findings and announced the appointment of a "special assistant," the U.S. ambassador to Jordan, William Burns, to help the sides step back from eight months of confrontation.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, accepting the recommendations of the Mitchell report, repeated a call to reonvene an international summit that proposed a cease-fire last October, soon after the violence erupted. The cease-fire was not implemented.

A Sharon spokesman also welcomed the report but accused the Palestinians of "playing games," reiterating Israel's position that a complete cessation of violence must come before talks.

In his televised talk, Sharon said a cease-fire could lead to implementing the U.S.-backed plan. Sharon said he believed a formula could be found that would satisfy the Palestinians, but also allow for the settlements to expand according to their current needs.

Learn more about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"There is no link between the halt of violence and the subject of settlements. This subject has to be discussed between the two sides in the future," Sharon added.

Sharon called a for a resumption of peace talks which were broken off in January, about a week before an election that swept Sharon to power.

In what may have been a goodwill gesture, Israel's defense minister banned army soldiers from initiating offensives against Palestinians and ordered them to open fire only when lives were endangered.

U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said after a meeting Tuesday with Arafat that a settlement freeze would "make it easier for him (Arafat) to cool down the situation."

But Israeli Cabinet minister Danny Naveh said Israel would only consider goodwill gestures to the Palestinians once attacks on Israelis stop completely. And Israel's housing and construction minister, Natan Sharansky, met with Powell and later declared that "no prize will be paid for terrorism."

Israel says it will not build new settlements, but will not stop the "natural growth" of those already in existence. It says under interim deals, the issue should be resolved in talks on a peace treaty with the Palestinians.

At least 444 Palestinians, 87 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since a Palestinian uprising erupted last September. A Palestinian policeman, wounded in a West Bank gun battle on Friday, died on Tuesday, hospital officials said.

Tuesday, the violence picked up again, with Palestinians firing mortar shells into open territory on the Israeli side of the border fence in the Gaza Strip. And Palestinian officials said Israeli army bulldozers and tanks flattened Palestinian olive and citrus groves south of Gaza City. The army said it was checking the report. There was also exchanges of fire in two West Bank areas.

In the West Bank, Israeli peace activists demonstrating in favor of dismantling Jewish settlements scuffled briefly with settlers.

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