Sharon Offers Peace Inside And Out

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday he planned to replace his minority government with a broad coalition to push through his Gaza withdrawal plan and promised not to launch attacks on Palestinians unless provoked.

A Hamas leader in Gaza said later Thursday that a truce is possible — a new position for the violent Islamic group.

In other developments:

  • The militant group Islamic Jihad announced Thursday that it would boycott the Jan. 9 vote, joining the larger of the two violent Islamic groups, Hamas, which on Wednesday called on its members to stay away.
  • Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday described Sharon as the Palestinians' best chance for peace. His comments, strikingly upbeat, and could mean warming relations between the Jewish state and an important Mideast peace mediator at a crucial time.
  • Sharon said Thursday that he is willing to meet Syrian President Bashar Assad, but that formal peace talks between the archrivals remain impossible as long as the Damascus government harbors Palestinian militant groups. No preconditions, replied Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shara. "This proposal is unacceptable to us," he told reporters in Damascus.
  • Sharon said Thursday that jailed West Bank Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti would remain in jail despite his plans to run for head of the Palestinian Authority. "He can (campaign) according to the conditions in the prison in which he sits," Sharon said at a meeting of Israeli newspaper editors. Barghouti also criticized by fellow Palestinian leaders for jeopardizing the unity of the mainstream Fatah party and hurting prospects for a smooth transition of power in the wake of Arafat's death Nov. 11.

    Sharon said Israel will not launch raids against the Palestinians if the situation remains calm. He said he's willing to "make painful concessions for true peace," but reiterated that the new Palestinian leadership must crack down on militant groups.

    In Gaza City, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said talks among Palestinian factions could lead to a halt to attacks against Israel. After meeting Abbas, Zahar said if the Israelis "stop their aggression against our people, I think through the negotiations ... we can reach a final agreement" on a truce, the first time a Hamas leader has said clearly that such a cease-fire is attainable.

    Sharon's governing coalition has disintegrated in recent days after the premier fired the moderate Shinui Party for voting against the budget, leaving him with only 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset. If Sharon cannot patch together a new coalition, he would be forced to call early elections, endangering his plans to pull out of Gaza next year.

    Sharon has invited ultra-Orthodox parties and the dovish Labor party to join his government, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger.

    "Our number one priority is [to make sure] the government will implement the disengagement program" from the Gaza Strip, Labor member of parliament Ofer Paz said.

    At a gathering of Israeli journalists, Sharon reiterated his intention to carry out his "disengagement" plan, under which Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements next year.

    "We are standing before fateful decisions, and it's important that there be a broad and stable coalition," Sharon said.

    The plan had originally been intended as a unilateral action, but Sharon has spoken in recent days of coordinating the pullout with the Palestinians. However, such meetings would have to wait until after Palestinian elections on Jan. 9.

    On Thursday, Palestinian election officials announced that 10 candidates had qualified to run to replace Yasser Arafat as head of Palestinian Authority in the elections.

    The candidates included Mahmoud Abbas — the interim Palestinian leader who is considered the front-runner — jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti and democracy advocate Mustafa Barghouti. The two Barghoutis are distant relatives.

    Marwan Barghouti is only 45, and represents the young generation that grew up in the West Bank and Gaza, but "Barghouti, who has commissioned bloody terrorist attacks, could be freed at the earliest in 100 years — with time off for good behavior," former Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi told Israel Radio.

    Rami Hamdallah, chairman of the Palestinian election committee, said the official campaign will start 14 days before the election and end 24 hours before the vote. About 71 percent of qualified Palestinians, or 1.3 million people, have registered to vote, he said.

    Abbas, who visited his campaign headquarters in Gaza on Thursday, appealed to all Palestinians to vote in the election, the first the Palestinians will hold since 1996.

    "Our people should participate and share in all the institutions and decisions regarding the future," he said. "We must have a strong capable authority to provide security and stability to our people and to bring our people out."

    Israel has said it planned to ease conditions in the West Bank and Gaza so as not to interfere with the campaigns and the voting. Since Arafat's death, the level of violence between the two sides has decreased markedly.