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Sharon congratulates Abbas on win

Leaders plan to meet for first time since 2003

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Mahmoud Abbas yesterday to congratulate him for his landslide victory in an election to replace Yasser Arafat, signaling Israel's readiness to work with the new Palestinian team after years of boycotting Arafat.

Both sides said a meeting will take place, but no date was set.

Abbas's election victory on Sunday and Sharon's success this week in putting together a government that favors his plan to pull out of Gaza and part of the West Bank this summer have raised hope the two leaders can break through layers of mistrust built up over four years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Still, both sides face internal problems. Palestinian National Security Adviser Jibril Rajoub resigned, and critics in Sharon's own Likud party complained that his new government cannot survive without support from doves and Arab parties -- their bitter rivals.

Sharon congratulated Abbas ''on his personal achievement and his victory in the elections and wished him luck," said a statement from Sharon's office, adding, ''They agreed they would continue talking in the near future."

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said plans for a Sharon-Abbas meeting were still in an early stage. ''When the right time comes, we will go for a well-prepared meeting. We will not go just for a meeting, but for a useful one," he said.

Sharon and Abbas last met in August 2003, during Abbas's brief term as Arafat's prime minister. Abbas resigned shortly afterward, blaming Arafat for refusing to hand over authority and Israel for failing to accept his demands to ease restrictions and release Palestinian prisoners.

Israel would not negotiate with Arafat, accusing him of encouraging attacks against Israelis. The last meeting Arafat had with an Israeli prime minister was in 2000.

Abbas, widely considered more moderate than Arafat, has spoken out against violence, calling attacks against Israel a mistake.

Israel's first demand of the new Palestinian leadership is to make an effort to stop the violence -- a precondition for peace talks.

After shunning Arafat for the last four years, Israeli officials have said they are eager to work with Abbas.

A senior Israeli Defense Ministry official said yesterday that Israel is ready to hand over to the Palestinians security duties in West Bank cities.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said discussions with the Palestinians on the issue would probably begin in the coming days.

Israel has had security control over all West Bank cities since launching a large offensive in April 2002 in response to a suicide bombing that killed 29 people.

Abbas has refused to order a crackdown on the violent groups, saying he wants to negotiate a cease-fire instead. During his election campaign, he embraced armed militants and pledged that the fugitives wanted by Israel would be allowed to live as free men.

The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have said they are ready to work with Abbas, but are resisting his calls for a cease-fire.

Hamas militants fired several barrages of mortar shells and homemade rockets at Israeli towns and Jewish settlements in Gaza yesterday. No one was hurt, but several buildings -- including a synagogue packed with worshipers -- were damaged. Also, an Israeli wounded Jan. 2 in a Palestinian rocket attack died yesterday.

Both the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership say they are committed to the US-backed ''road map" plan leading to a Palestinian state. Neither side carried out the initial obligations, stalling the process.

The plan requires the Palestinians to crack down on militants who have staged numerous suicide bombings and calls on Israel to freeze settlement activity on lands envisioned as part of a future Palestinian state.

Israel has removed a few illegal settlement outposts, but dozens remain, and construction inside veteran settlements continues.

Rajoub was the first senior Palestinian official to resign since Abbas won the election, but he left the door open for his reappointment, saying Abbas should be able to choose his own security adviser.

However, Abbas is closer to Rajoub's main rival, Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan. The three met on Monday to try to resolve the differences, a Palestinian official said.

In a statement, Rajoub recommended consolidating the competing and overlapping Palestinian security services into three branches -- echoing similar demands from Israel and the United States.

Rajoub, one of the most powerful figures in the West Bank, was Arafat's security adviser for the last year of his leadership.

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