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Israel vows peace unless provoked

/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel will not launch attacks or raids against Palestinians if the situation remains calm and it is not provoked, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday.

However, Israel would act if it had information that militants were planning imminent attacks on Israel and would respond if Palestinians fired rockets at Israel, he said.

“If there is quiet, we of course will not act,” Sharon said.

Level of violence falls
Since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death Nov. 11, the level of violence between the two sides has decreased markedly.

Both Sharon and interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have called for a reopening of peace talks, which had been frozen, between the two sides.

Speaking to Israeli journalists Thursday, Sharon reiterated that he was determined to carry out his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements next year.

The plan had originally been intended as a unilateral action, but Sharon has spoken in recent days of coordinating the pullout with the Palestinians.

As a condition for new talks, Sharon has demanded Palestinian leaders crack down on anti-Israel bias, or “incitement,” in the Palestinian media, a condition they appeared to be meeting, he said.

“Since I turned to the Palestinians, the incitement has dropped,” he said.

Earlier this week, Palestinian officials confirmed that Abbas has ordered state-run television and radio to halt hateful programming.

Sharon said he would be willing to “make painful concessions for true peace,” but reiterated his demand that Palestinians crack down on militant groups.

“On subject of terror, Israel will not make any compromises,” he said. “In regards to the security of Israel, there will not be any compromises. I hope the new leadership will act in this regard so it will be possible to progress.”

Sharon to court opposition
Meanwhile, Sharon said Thursday that he would court the opposition Labor Party and ultra-Orthodox parties in a bid to shore up his minority coalition.

Sharon made the announcement a day after badly losing a parliamentary vote on the budget. After the vote, Sharon dismissed the Shinui Party, his main coalition partner, which voted against the budget, leaving him with only 40 seats in the 120-member parliament.

“There is no choice but to start formally to try to widen the coalition with the Labor and the ultra-Orthodox,” Sharon told a gathering of Israeli newspaper editors.

If Sharon cannot patch together a new coalition, he could be forced to call new elections, threatening to delay or cancel Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year.

“There are two choices clearly, unity government or elections,” he said. “I hope my friends will understand we have reached this point and there’s no other choice.”

Sharon also said that Palestinian uprising 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,” he said.

Barghouti makes his move
On Wednesday, Barghouti announced that he would challenge the establishment candidate, Abbas, a run for the office.

Barghouti’s sudden move, just hours before the midnight deadline for registering candidates for the Jan. 9 election, threatened to upset the so far smooth transfer of power from Arafat to his decades-long deputy, Mahmoud Abbas. It drew harsh denunciations from officials from Fatah, their party.

Barghouti was the West Bank leader of Fatah when he was captured by Israeli forces in April 2002. Barghouti, 45, a diminutive, fiery, charismatic figure, is a sharp contrast to the graying, quiet, shy Abbas, 69, the official Fatah candidate.

Late Wednesday, Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, registered her imprisoned husband as an independent to challenge Abbas and several others.

The response was quick and sharp. Tayeb Abdel Rahim, spokesman of the Fatah Central Committee — which nominated Abbas last month — denounced Barghouti and stopped just short of reading him out of the movement.

“We consider this as an irresponsible act.” Abdel Rahim said of Barghouti’s candidacy, adding that by running as an independent, “Barghouti has given up his Fatah affiliation.”