updated 5/24/2005 1:09:26 PM ET 2005-05-24T17:09:26

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged cooperation Tuesday with newly elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “so long as we do not risk our security,” and demanded that Abbas quickly crack down on militants.

In an effort to prod the peace process forward, Sharon also promised to ask Israel’s parliament to release 400 more Palestinian prisoners upon his return to Israel. Sharon’s government has released 500 already. The fate of prisoners is a constant source of friction between Israelis and Palestinians.

“There is one thing on which we will not make any compromises, not now and not in the future,” Sharon told a mostly supportive Jewish audience, “and that is our security.”

'We see great opportunities'
Sharon told a convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby here, that he has paid a heavy political price for supporting peace with the Palestinians and the dismantlement of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

“We see great opportunities in the election of Chairman Abbas. We hope he will be able to lead his people and create a democratic, law-abiding society,” and break down terrorist organizations, Sharon said.

“Israel doesn’t intend to lose this opportunity,” he added.

“We are willing to help Chairman Abbas as much as we can as long as we do not risk our security,” Sharon said. “That is the red line.”

Sharon did not specify what he meant by cooperation with Abbas, but the two sides are gradually working out deals for border security and other issues that could pave the way for an eventual peace deal.

Abbas election opens a window
Abbas was elected in December to succeed Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian leader. His election has opened a window for negotiation that both Israel and the Bush administration had considered closed during the last years of Arafat’s life.

Sharon said Israel is already taking steps to help the economic and humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian territories, where unemployment is high.

“We are ready to do more,” Sharon said.

“I appreciate Chairman Abbas’ decision to condemn violence and terrorism. With this approach, it can be a partner in implementing the roadmap (peace plan) and to move the process forward,” Sharon said. “But his statement must be translated into real actions on the ground.”

Sharon sounded a hawkish note almost from the start of his 25-minute address. He called Jerusalem “the eternal, united and undivided capital of the state of Israel and the Jewish people forever and ever.” He was interrupted by sustained applause before he got the entire, provocative statement out.

The difficult question of Jerusalem
Palestinians also claim portions of Jerusalem as holy, and the question of whether or how to divide the ancient city is perhaps the most difficult obstacle to a final peace deal that would create two separate states.

Sharon, ending a three-day visit to the U.S., called his nation’s relationship with the United States stronger than ever. He praised Congress and President Bush, whom Sharon did not see on this visit. He did meet with Bush at the president’s Texas ranch last month.

In New York on Monday, Sharon said he believes the Gaza withdrawal plan provides a great opportunity for restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.

“If it will work, as we expect, we believe it might be a major change in the Middle East, and of course with the relations between ourselves and the Palestinians,” Sharon told a group of Jewish leaders.

Sharon: Crackdown before talks
But he said a resumption of talks based on the U.S.-backed “road map” remains far off. As he did Tuesday, Sharon said negotiations could only start if Abbas cracks down on Palestinian militant groups.

Sharon also reiterated his position that large blocs of West Bank settlements would remain part of Israel “forever,” though he left the door open to turning over other areas of the West Bank under an eventual peace agreement. “Other places, all of that I think will be ... the final phase of the permanent agreement negotiations,” he said.

The comments, which fall far short of Palestinian demands, were likely to be raised by Abbas in his meeting with Bush on Thursday. Abbas is eager to restart talks on the road map, which calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and he wants all of the West Bank.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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