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Last Updated: Friday, 31 October, 2003, 11:37 GMT
Sharon 'ready' to meet Palestinian PM
Ariel Sharon
Sharon: "We are ready to start negotiations at any time"

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he is ready to meet the Palestinian prime minister-designate "as soon as he is ready".

His invitation to Mr Qurei reverses a previous decision by Israel not to communicate with him because of his closeness to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Israel and its key ally the United States refuse to deal with Mr Arafat, describing him as "tainted by terror".

Mr Sharon said the Palestinians had requested a delay in such a meeting to allow Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei - also known as Abu Ala - "to gain strength".

"We are maintaining dialogue with the Palestinians, although not on the level of prime minister," Mr Sharon said.

"We are ready to start negotiations at any time."

Mr Sharon also told an economic forum in Tel Aviv on Thursday that Israel "is at the brink of a new opportunity to find the way to quiet and peace".

Palestinian officials have dismissed Mr Sharon's remarks as a ploy.

The Israeli Haaretz Daily newspaper quoted Jamal al-Shobaki, a Palestinian cabinet minister, as denying a request had been made to delay a Sharon-Qurei meeting.

Mr al-Shobaki accused Mr Sharon of attempting to draw international attention away from criticism over "hardline measures" Israel has taken against Palestinians.

New beginning

On Friday, Israel lifted some travel restrictions to allow Palestinian MPs to attend a parliamentary session in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

At the session, Palestinian MPs will participate in a vote of confidence on the new Palestinian Government, as presented by Mr Qurei.

If the vote backs Mr Qurei, a fully-fledged Palestinian Government could replace the current emergency cabinet next week.

Palestinian prime minister-designate Ahmed Qurei
Mr Qurei is trying to get militant groups to disarm
Renewed violence as well as the fragmentation of the Palestinian administration - following the resignation of Mr Qurei's predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas - brought the US-backed roadmap peace plan to a halt.

But on Wednesday, Mr Qurei pledged to travel to the Gaza Strip to speak with militant organisations to agree to a ceasefire with Israel.

He described talks he had with Hamas in the week as "constructive", adding that a ceasefire with Palestinian militant groups could be broadened into a mutual truce with Israel.

"I want Palestinian assurances. If I get them, there will be no problem," Mr Qurei said.

"If we unite, we will open roads, if we don't unite, we will close the roads on ourselves."

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