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Sharon phones Abbas in highest contact for nearly 4 years
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon phoned Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday to congratulate him on his election as Palestinian president and offer cooperation, the highest-level contact between the sides in nearly four years. But Palestinian militants resumed rocket and mortar fire at Jewish settlements in Gaza, signaling tough challenges ahead for the moderate Abbas and his call for a truce to help revive peace talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state. Abbas's predecessor Yasser Arafat last spoke to Sharon by telephone in February 2001 to congratulate him on his election victory. With a Palestinian uprising raging, Sharon subsequently boycotted Arafat, calling him an "arch-terrorist."
Sharon's office said he spoke with Abbas for 10 minutes and welcomed his landslide election victory on a platform of non-violence. "He wished him success and the two agreed they would talk again soon," it said in a statement. A senior government official quote Sharon as telling Abbas: "I am offering you our cooperation." He said Sharon and Abbas spoke about a meeting in general terms but no date was set.
Earlier Sharon told his Cabinet he would seek coordination on security matters, based on a Palestinian effort to "stop terrorism" against Israelis, and added: "I believe there will be a meeting between us soon." Maher Shalabi, an adviser to Abbas, said the two leaders talked about "ways to revive the peace process and about a meeting, which will be set up in the next few days." While Abbas wants a cease-fire, he has rejected Israeli demands to crush the militants, calling them "freedom fighters" whom he wants to integrate into the Palestinian mainstream. Aides say Abbas would gain more leverage over militants if Israel stopped expanding settlements in the West Bank and proved it was ready to talk about a viable Palestinian state, not just security coordination to protect Israelis. A senior Israeli security source said Sharon was ready to turn over most occupied territory to Palestinian policing - meaning a halt to army raids and removal of checkpoints - if Abbas demonstrated "a 100 percent effort" to subdue militants.
Abbas took 62.3 percent of the ballot in Sunday's election of a successor to Arafat. But powerful Islamists boycotted the vote and refused to suspend attacks on Israel.
They wasted no time subjecting the new Palestinian president to his first test, firing seven rockets and mortar bombs into Jewish enclaves in southern Gaza and one rocket into an Israeli border town, causing damage but no casualties. The resurgence of rocket fire after an election lull and the threat of more Israeli Army counter-strikes could, if not swiftly checked, stall the post-Arafat diplomatic momentum. Abbas' Fatah convened its central committee Tuesday and urged the new leader to work toward a cease-fire with Israel that would be under international supervision. Abbas made reform of the security services one of the key platforms of his campaign. On Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority published a bill to reduce the number of security services from 11 to three.
Under the terms of the bill, which is expected to be debated by Parliament next week, the national security council will in the future be headed by the prime minister rather than the president. Streamlining the security apparatus was long promised by
Arafat but never implemented and the battle for its control lay at the heart of fierce political infighting over the past few years. In another sign of a break with the Arafat era, his former national security advisor, Jibril Rajub, submitted his resignation to Abbas.
In his letter of resignation, Rajub said he was stepping down in recognition of the "new realities after the martyrdom of our president and symbol of our struggle.