Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says a new door to Mideast peace has been opened, and that Israel is on the brink of a breakthrough in diplomatic talks with the Palestinians.

“I believe that we are on the verge of making a breakthrough and entering a path of peace and quiet,” the Jerusalem Post quotes him as telling delegates attending an economic forum in Tel Aviv.

Sharon told Israeli businessmen talks are under way with the Palestinians, but not at the level of prime ministers.

“The reason we don’t have prime ministerial level contacts stems from the fact that Palestinians have requested time to allow the designated Palestinian prime minister to establish himself,” Sharon said.

“We are ready to start negotiations at any time,” he added.

Palestinian cabinet minister Jamal al-Shobaki told Israel Radio no request had been made to delay a Sharon-Qureia meeting and dismissed Sharon’s
statement as intending to draw attention away from the criticism of Israel’s hard-line measures taken against Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s top
adviser, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, confirmed today that representatives from both sides were working to ease restrictions on the Palestinian
population, according to the radio report. Rudeineh said the talks have yet to produce an agreement.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz plans to meet with a top Palestinian figure next week ahead of his visit to the United States, which is aimed at fostering cooperation between Israel and Qureia’s new government. His meeting follows contacts between Amos Gilad, a top defense ministry official, and senior Palestinian officials in recent days.

Qureia faces a Nov. 4 deadline, imposed by Arafat, to form a full Cabinet. He was appointed a month ago to replace embattled Mahmoud Abbas, who blamed Arafat for undermining his authority and blocking his efforts to implement the U.S.-brokered “road map” to peace.

At the time of Abbas’ resignation, a senior diplomatic official told the Jerusalem Post if Abbas was to leave the scene, he would be taking the road map with him. Israel signed on to the plan, he explained, based on the understanding Abbas would be the negotiating partner rather than Arafat.

“The problem is that Abbas is committed to the road map and the Aqaba summit, and wants to pursue a course of action that will lead to a two-state solution, while Arafat represents the strategy of terrorism,” the official told the Post.

Some Israeli diplomatic sources told the Jerusalem Post they believe Abbas’ move likely was just a tactical maneuver. One official said Abbas resigned to step up international pressure on Arafat to restore him and give him real power, the paper reported.

Early expectation on the part of Israelis was that no leader – including Qureia – will prevail in the power struggle with Arafat. The concern prompted a controversial proposal to force Arafat into exile, which sparked international consternation.

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