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Sharon: 'Possibility for a breakthrough' with Palestinians

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- In one of his most optimistic statements since the current intifada started nearly two years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Wednesday that "for the first time, I see a possibility for a breakthrough," in relations with the Palestinians.

At the same time, Sharon said Israel will fully support the United States in any action it may take against Iraq.

Sharon's words, which followed calls from Palestinian Interior Minister Abdul Razzek for an end to the months of bloody violence, came in an interview with Israeli television on the eve of the Jewish new year.

Sharon said he believes it is now possible to negotiate with "Palestinians who have reached a conclusion that, with terror, they can't achieve anything. And the way [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat has led them for years, terror and murder, hasn't brought them anything."

Palestinian leaders shrugged off Sharon's comments, saying they doubted he was serious and they have seen no change of heart on his part. But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat expressed support for peace negotiations.

'The world is sick and tired of us repeating ourselves'

"The whole idea was to engage instead of talking [about doing] something, because the world is sick and tired of us repeating ourselves and saying the same things," Erakat said. "The whole idea is to begin, gradually, a process which is very painful for us, very difficult for us. But we accept it."

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Erakat called on leaders of both sides to issue a joint cease-fire declaration.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Arafat told Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller he accepts a new European Union initiative for a cease-fire, to be followed by talks and eventually a Palestinian state within three years, alongside Israel.

Moeller, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, is on a tour of the Middle East.

"The proposals of the European Union are how to quickly bring the peace process back on track," Moeller said. "There's a limit to what people can endure and it's obvious that the Palestinian people [are] close to that limit. That's why we have created this process where we combine the call for election with the vision about the two states side by side living in peace."

Regarding possible plans by the United States to attack Iraq, Sharon said Israel "definitely" supports what Washington decides.

"We are not pushing them either to advance or to delay action," Sharon said, "but we will support every decision of the United States to fight against world terrorism. And in the case of Iraq, there is the added dimension of weapons of mass destruction."

'I hope there will be no need for us to act'

He added, "Israel is a strong country, and therefore I hope there will be no need for us to act. All those who would harm us know Israel is not devoid of power and that Israel will know how to defend itself."

Israel's defense minister said last month that Israel "has a right to respond" if Iraq reacts to a potential U.S. attack by launching weapons of mass destruction against Israeli cities.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq tried to divide the Western-Arab coalition arrayed against it by launching scud missile attacks against targets in Israel. Under pressure from Washington, Israel -- which is widely believed to have nuclear weapons -- did not respond in kind. Instead, the United States supplied the Patriot missile system to Israel for its defense.




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