Sharon Heading to Britain and U.S. for Talks on 'Road Map'

New York Times

July 11, 2003


ERUSALEM, July 11 — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon heads to Britain on Sunday and will see President Bush in the United States later this month as part an effort to build momentum for the Middle East peace effort, Israeli officials said today.

In the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, the Palestinian security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, demanded the release of more than 5,000 prisoners held by Israel, a major issue that remains unresolved and that has been a source of tension in recent days.

Mr. Dahlan met Thursday night with Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, at the crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

As Mr. Dahlan's motorcade headed home to Gaza City nearby, his bodyguards shot and wounded a Palestinian man standing along the road, Palestinians said.

The bodyguards apparently thought the man posed a threat and shot him in the leg, Palestinian officials said. The man is a member of Hamas, which today called for those involved in the shooting to be arrested.

The region has been mostly calm since Palestinian factions declared a truce on June 29. However, many Palestinians have been critical of the negotiations, saying their prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, has gotten too little under the current peace initiative, known as the road map, which was initiated more than a month ago.

Several thousand Palestinian demonstrators marched through the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza today to demand the release of the prisoners. Israel has freed about 300 prisoners in recent weeks, and says it is prepared to free around 300 more. But Mr. Sharon has given no indication that he is prepared for larger releases at this time.

Mr. Sharon has shunned the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, and says he wants to bolster Mr. Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen.

"I want to help him because he is a man who believes that the only way to arrive at peace is not via violence, nor terrorism. It's through negotiation," Mr. Sharon said in remarks published today in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

On the diplomatic front, Israel has been at odds with a number of European countries over how to proceed with peace efforts. In particular, Israel has criticized European countries that have continued to maintain contacts with Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Sharon is seeking to rebuild those relations at a crucial moment in the peace process, said Raanan Gissin, the spokesman for Mr. Sharon.

"It's no secret that these relations were marred, and we're making an effort to turn a new leaf," Mr. Gissin said. "We believe the Europeans can play a constructive role by putting pressure on Arafat and by encouraging Abu Mazen to take concrete steps to stop violence."

Mr. Sharon will hold talks in Britain with Prime Minister Tony Blair before heading on to Norway on Wednesday. His visit to the United States, originally planned for September, has been moved up two months at the request of the Americans, Israeli officials said.

During his more than two years in office, Mr. Sharon has been a frequent visitor to the Bush White House. Israeli radio reported that Mr. Abbas could also visit the White House this month, but Palestinian officials did not immediately comment on the report.

Seeking to move the peace process forward, the United States has in recent days announced two aid packages for the Palestinians totaling $50 million.

The money will be geared toward repairing roads, public buildings, electricity and water systems that have been damaged in Mideast fighting. The Americans will unveil a $15 million "quick aid"" package for the Gaza Strip on Monday in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun, which was badly damaged during a two-month Israeli occupation of the area.

The United States is giving more than $200 million to the Palestinians this year.