Sharon, Abbas say they are willing to meet
Israeli foreign minister to see Egyptian counterpart on pullout plan
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said in interviews published on Sunday they would be willing to meet, though such talks were unlikely before a Jan. 9 Palestinian election.
Ahead of an expected meeting between both sides' foreign ministers in The Hague, Sharon told Newsweek magazine that he was ready to meet with the post-Yasser Arafat leadership whenever they wanted.
A spokesman for Sharon said Israel would try to use a summit with Abbas "to exploit a window of opportunity" created by the death of Yasser Arafat and move with the Palestinians towards reviving a violence-stalled peace "road map."
"When they would like to meet, we will meet," Sharon told Newsweek, when asked whether he was ready to hold talks with Abbas.
Sharon also suggested he would try to discuss with the Palestinians his plan to remove unilaterally next year all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank.
In a separate Newsweek interview, Abbas said: "After the elections, I'm ready to meet at any time with Sharon."
Abbas, who took over from Arafat as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, is the leading candidate to replace him as president in the ballot in the Palestinian territories.
"There's nothing to prevent a meeting with Ariel Sharon or the Israeli government but it is essential to take the necessary time to convene such a meeting," Abbas told reporters in Cairo, where he was speaking at the Arab League.
Israel rejected any talks with Arafat, accusing the late president of fomenting bloodshed in a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. Arafat always denied the allegation.
Since Arafat's death, Sharon has softened his opposition to Palestinian Authority involvement in the planned pullout from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, saying he hoped to avoid a withdrawal under fire from militants.
"I am going to make every effort to coordinate our disengagement plan with the new Palestinian government - one that can assume control over areas we evacuate," Sharon said.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and heads of the security establishment finalized the military plans for the Gaza withdrawal last Thursday. The evacuation will begin on July 3, 2005, and last 12 weeks, officials at the meeting said.
Abbas said the Palestinians were not yet ready to handle security in Gaza but hoped it would be possible.
"Now we have some sort of chaos, especially in Gaza," Abbas said. "We are ready to take (Gaza) when we rebuild our security apparatus. If you tell me (do it) now, I'll say I cannot, but I'm working very hard to rebuild the security apparatus."
An Israeli Foreign Ministry source confirmed Sunday that Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom would meet on Wednesday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, for talks on the Gaza pull-out plan, which were initially set for last week but which were postponed after the killing of three Egyptian police by the Israeli Army.
The two governments have been liasing closely over the pullout with both countries keen to prevent Islamist groups stepping into any vacuum after the Israeli withdrawal.
Shalom was also set to meet with his Palestinian counterpart Nabil Shaath at a conference in The Hague on Monday.
Shaath said in a statement that he would use the gathering of European and Middle Eastern foreign ministers to "ask for help in the elections and to put pressure on Israel to lift the closures in our cities, villages and camps."
Shalom meanwhile, Sunday accused the European Union of bias in favor of the Palestinians.
European diplomats have stepped up contacts over the past two weeks. "I believe it shows that the EU would like to get involved in a peace process in the region," Shalom said Sunday, but added that "it can't be that they adopt in advance 100 percent of the demands of the Palestinian side if they want to become a mediator or facilitator between us and them."
The Hague meeting groups the EU with nonmembers Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Turkey, what is known as the "Euromed" partnership.
Israel's Foreign Ministry said that Shalom will also hold bilateral meetings with the foreign ministers of several EU states and of Jordan, Turkey and Mauritania. - Agencies
Israel presses to change Arafat's death certificate
PARIS: Israel has sent three letters to the French government demanding it prove Yasser Arafat was born in Jerusalem as printed on his death certificate, an Israeli diplomat in Paris said Sunday.
The official requests follow protests from Israel that Arafat was really born in the Egyptian capital Cairo and not Jerusalem.
The distinction is symbolically crucial because Palestinians claim Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, but Israel has shown it has no intention of ceding any part of the holy city.
Arafat, long the public face of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, was declared dead in a French military hospital on the outskirts of Paris on Nov. 11.
The official Palestinian version of his life history records he was born in Jerusalem on Aug. 4, 1929, named Mohammed Abdel-Rawf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Hussaini.
However numerous biographers agree that he was, in fact, born in Cairo, where his father, from Gaza, owned a business.
Israel's ambassador to France, Nissim Zvili, on Thursday told journalists: "I cannot understand how the French government agreed to issue a death certificate based on false information."
According to the Israeli diplomat speaking Sunday on condition of anonymity, the three letters were sent to the local municipality of Clamart where the military hospital is located, to the French state prosecutor's office, and to Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin.
Municipal officials at Clamart, where Arafat died on Nov. 11, said they issued the death certificate on the basis of Arafat family records themselves written up by the French Foreign Ministry in 1996 following the birth of Arafat's daughter Zahwa in a Paris hospital. Arafat's widow Suha shares her time between France and Tunisia.