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Israel softens Palestine stand

Jerusalem, June 1 (Reuters): Israel signalled support today for efforts by the Palestinian Prime Minister to persuade militants to stop attacks on Israelis, removing an obstacle to the success of a summit with US President George W. Bush.

“A ceasefire — that’s fine,” a senior Israeli government source said. “The point is, at the end of the day there have to be real steps to disarm and dismantle the Palestinian terrorist groups.” “I think today what needs to be done...is keep calm, not raise issues that do not have to be dealt with at the moment,” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told reporters. “I hope this way we will get to where we want.”

Israeli leaders had said Mahmoud Abbas’ call for a truce with Palestinian groups behind suicide bombings in Israel fell short of a crackdown envisioned by a US-backed peace “road map” Bush plans to promote at the three-way summit on Wednesday. It was not clear why Israel had shifted position, but US envoys have been meeting with both sides since Friday to prepare the ground for the talks in Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba.

Ahead of the summit, Israel announced it had eased military closures on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Palestinians said there had been no real moves to lift travel restrictions.

As part of what Israeli officials described as goodwill gestures, the defence ministry said some 25,000 Palestinian workers would receive permits to enter Israel by week’s end.

More than 120,000 Palestinians worked legally in Israel before the start in September 2000 of an uprising for statehood. “Israeli claims of a so-called easing of the closure are untrue,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior aide to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. “The siege should be lifted.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offered to loosen a military grip on Palestinians at talks on Thursday with Abbas and free up to 100 Palestinian prisoners. “These are veteran prisoners and those who are in any case on the brink of being released, among them the chronically ill,” Israeli deputy defence minister Zeev Boim told army radio.

A full closure was imposed on the Palestinian territories in May after a wave of suicide bombings. Israel says such clampdowns are needed to stop the suicide bombings. The Palestinians say they are a collective punishment.

Under the road map, drawn up by the US, UN, EU and Russia, Israel and the Palestinians are to take reciprocal steps leading to a Palestinian state in 2005. “The work ahead will require difficult decisions and leadership, but there is no other choice,” Bush said in his weekly radio address during a visit to Poland.

Bush, due to attend a summit with Arab leaders in Egypt on Tuesday before meeting Sharon and Abbas in Jordan the next day, is taking a more hands-on approach to West Asian peacemaking after the Iraq war.

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