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After Gaza pullout, officials from Israel, Qatar meet at UN

UNITED NATIONS -- Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, which earned praise here Wednesday from the Arab emirate of Qatar, led to an unusual meeting yesterday between Qatar's foreign minister and his Israeli counterpart on the sidelines of the UN summit.

The meeting was described as a first step in efforts to arrange a summit between the two nations.

The session was the latest diplomatic reward for Israel's ending its 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip -- the Jewish state's first-ever evacuation of territory the Palestinians claim for a future state. The Israeli foreign minister has met with his counterparts from two major Muslim countries, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Arab countries such as Qatar are encouraging efforts toward a new peace process as a way to ease the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and blunt the influence of Islamic militants, who are using discontent about the Palestinians and war in Iraq to stir up unrest.

There will be limits, however, to the diplomatic payback. Muslim nations expect major strides from Israel on the peacemaking front -- if not the establishment of a Palestinian state -- before committing to warmer ties.

Qatar is a close US ally in the Persian Gulf and home to the US Central Command's forward operations in the Middle East.

The emirate's foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani, said it was possible to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel before the formation of an independent Palestine.

''It could happen," he said before heading into the closed meeting with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of Israel. ''But we need to see a timetable -- how we will start the peace process and how we will end."

Arabs have proposed a peace plan calling for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and east Jerusalem, which would all be part of an independent Palestinian state. They also demand that Israel give up the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria. In return, Arab states have said they will offer Israel normal relations and peace.

But the Israelis, mindful of security needs and established Jewish settlements, have no plans to withdraw from all of the West Bank, and have rejected Palestinian demands to share Jerusalem. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel told the summit of world leaders yesterday that it was up to the Palestinians to build on the momentum he set in motion by withdrawing from Gaza. Sharon, who has enjoyed a warm reception at the summit because of the pullout, acknowledged the Palestinians' right to a state of their own. But at the same time, he reasserted Israel's claims to Jerusalem as its ''eternal and united capital."

''Now it is the Palestinians' turn to prove their desire for peace," Sharon said. ''The most important test the Palestinian leaders will face is in fulfilling their commitment to putting an end to terror and its infrastructures, eliminate the anarchic regime of armed gangs, and cease the incitement and indoctrination of hatred toward Israel and the Jews."

Sharon received courteous applause after the speech, though Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser Al-Kidwa was shown sitting with his arms folded.

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