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Commentators Look for Signs of a Turning Point in the Conflict

Could Israel and the Palestinians be reaching a turning point in their two-year-old conflict?

High-level contacts between the two sides were expected this week, including a possible meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas.

According to Palestinian sources, Sharon and Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, will discuss ways to end Israeli- Palestinian violence. There was no confirmation from Sharon’s office.

Security officials from the two sides also are expected to meet.

Observers who believe a turning point has been reached point to the relative lull in violence in the past several weeks.

Last week, Sharon said that for the first time since the intifada began in September 2000, he saw the possibility of reaching a peace agreement — primarily because the Palestinians had despaired of winning Israeli concessions through violence, he said.

Despite such pronouncements, Sharon and other Israeli officials continue to dismiss Arafat as a possible peace partner.

Indeed, Sharon said in a weekend newspaper interview that the Oslo accords are no longer valid.

“Some of us were naive, some of us perhaps didn’t think things through well enough,” Sharon said. “In any event, it no longer exists. Oslo no longer exists, Camp David no longer exists, also Taba. We’re not going back to those places,” he said referring to the sites of two other Mideast peace summits.

On Sunday night, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres disagreed with Sharon. Speaking on Israel Radio, Peres said no one has decided to cancel the Oslo accords. Despite nearly two years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, there is no alternative to the accords, Peres added.

On Monday, in his first appearance before Palestinian legislators in 18 months, Arafat told the legislative council that he condemns “every act of terror against Israeli civilians,” but he did not say such attacks should be halted.

A draft version of the speech obtained by The Associated Press contained several paragraphs calling for an end to suicide bombings in Israel, but Arafat left those paragraphs out of the speech he delivered.

Arafat said presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections would be held at the beginning of January.

The United States has been seeking to delay presidential elections in hopes of having the Palestinians create the office of prime minister, a move aimed at turning Arafat into a figurehead president.

Official Israeli reaction to Arafat’s Ramallah speech was dismissive. Reiterating the government’s position that Arafat is irrelevant, Sharon’s office said any speech by Arafat is irrelevant as well.

The tone of Arafat’s speech was not all conciliatory.

He accused Israel of exploiting Palestinian terrorist attacks in order to attack Palestinians and of using the Sept. 11 attacks to link the Palestinian Authority to terrorism.

Arafat’s address was viewed as a crucial test of his standing among the Palestinian public.

Arafat has drawn criticism both domestically and internationally for corruption in his regime. Monday’s meeting was formally convened to vote on the new Cabinet Arafat appointed in June.

During the address, Arafat joked that he was prepared to step down and give up executive powers should someone wish to replace him. But commentators agreed the remarks were not to be taken seriously.

On Monday, the Israeli army began gradually lifting the three-day curfew imposed on Palestinian population centers during Rosh Hashanah. Just the same, Israeli troops remained on high alert for possible terrorist attacks.

The alert was issued as Israeli officials revealed that they had arrested three Palestinians accused of plotting to poison drinks at Jerusalem’s Caf Rimon. Two confessed to their role in the plot, police said.

They were expected to be formally charged Monday, according to the Jerusalem Post. The third, who is the alleged ringleader, is a chef at the restaurant. He is to be charged with attempted murder later this week.

The suspects were apprehended three weeks ago, shortly before they were to have carried out the attack, the paper reported.

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