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In Speech, Sharon Makes Pitch for Rapprochement with Palestinians

If, indeed, it was the Jewish state’s version of the State of the Union address, then things are good and getting better. But there was more than just self-congratulation to Ariel Sharon’s closing address Thursday to the annual strategy conference known simply as the Herzliya Conference: It also was the Israeli prime minister’s chance to issue an appeal for rapprochement ahead of upcoming Palestinian Authority elections.

“The most genuine and greatest opportunity for building a new and different relationship with the Palestinians was created following the death of Yasser Arafat, who constituted the primary obstacle to peace,” Sharon said in a speech carried live by most major Middle East news channels.

“In light of the new opportunities and potential of a new Palestinian leadership, Israel will be prepared to coordinate various elements relating to our disengagement plan with the future Palestinian government,” he told the policy forum’s blue-ribbon audience.

It was the clearest statement yet of Sharon’s willingness to recast his unilateral vision of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank next year as consensual. And though he did not mention anyone by name, the speech was aimed at the man almost certain to succeed Arafat as P.A. president in Jan. 9 elections — Mahmoud Abbas.

The PLO chief’s initial reaction was not promising.

Asked on Al-Jazeera television about Sharon’s insistence that, under any final peace accord, Israel will keep some West Bank settlement blocs and refuse to allow in Palestinian refugees, Abbas said, “This statement is totally rejected.”

Though he seems certain to win the election, Abbas still is jockeying for position by trying to avoid alienating major Palestinian groups. He has called for an end to the intifada’s terrorism, saying it doesn’t serve Palestinian interests, but has refused to condemn attacks on Israeli soldiers serving in the Gaza Strip.

After five Israeli soldiers were killed last weekend in an attack on their position in Gaza, 11 were wounded Thursday night when they were shelled with mortars.

Sharon’s speech, which also praised the recent improvement in relations with Egypt, seemed designed to appeal not just to the Palestinians but to the broader Middle East.

“During 2005, we face an historic opportunity to change, from the ground up, the strategic situation of the State of Israel and take great strides towards the realization of our hopes,” Sharon said.

“In order to actualize these opportunities, we must take the initiative. This is the hour, this is the time. This is the national test,” Sharon said, stressing that withdrawing from Gaza — to focus on areas considered more vital to Israel, such as the West Bank settlement blocs — will unite the nation and ensure that it retains a solid Jewish majority.

The withdrawal plan “is the foundation and cornerstone for the great opportunities which lie before us, and is perhaps one of the most important decisions we have made in the last few years,” Sharon said. “Disengagement recognizes the demographic reality on the ground specifically, bravely and honestly. Of course it is clear to everyone that we will not be in the Gaza Strip in the final agreement.”

Sharon also expressed hope for closer cooperation between Israel and other nations in the fight against terrorism.

“In 2005, we have the opportunity to establish a new partnership with the international community in the struggle against terror and regional and global instability,” he said. “The world, and especially Europe, has learned to understand what we have faced for many years.”

Unlike in past years, when Sharon used the conference as a forum to unveil major policy initiatives, his speech this year was devoid of bold new moves. But some saw that as a sign that Israel finally is emerging from a period of intense conflict and moving ahead on the path Sharon already has set forth.

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