| Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (right) and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmud Abbas shake hands in Jerusalem on Tuesday. (AFP)
Jerusalem, July 1 (Reuters): Israeli and Palestinian leaders addressed their peoples together for the first time from Jerusalem today, delivering a commitment to peace from the city at the heart of the West Asian conflict.
“I have no doubt that the picture coming out of here today to the people of Israel, the Palestinian people and the entire world is one of hope and of optimism,” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a live TV broadcast. But the positive mood was offset by violations of a truce called by Palestinian factions, underscoring the enormity of the task ahead in implementing a new US-backed peace plan. The TV broadcast aired around the world showed members of the Israeli and Palestinian Cabinets sitting together and chatting in an extraordinary scene after 33 months of fighting.
Sharon, a Right-wing former general, said Israelis did not want to rule Palestinians in territory Israel captured in a 1967 war, or determine their future, but that peace would not be possible if Palestinian “terror” continued.
“We stand before a new opportunity for the possibility of a better future for both peoples. A future full of opportunities and hope is today closer than in the past,” Sharon said standing beside Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
The two leaders spoke before starting talks in Sharon’s Jerusalem office on ways of advancing the peace plan following the truce declaration and a partial Israeli military pullback from occupied territory.
Abbas said Palestinians desired an end to the conflict marked by scores of militant suicide bombings and crushing Israeli army incursions into self-ruled Palestinian areas.
“The only way to progress is through dialogue, discussions and negotiations,” the democratic reformer said. “Our conflict with you is a political conflict and we will end it through political means.”
”We have no hostility with the Israeli people and we have no interest in continuing the conflict with them. Our future is together and we hope we will today establish joint committees.”
Sharon reiterated that he was willing to pay a “painful price” for peace, an allusion to granting Palestinians a state, as prescribed by the peace plan but opposed by rightist allies and Jewish settlers on occupied territory.
Abbas and Sharon ended their conference with a long handshake, looking into each other's eyes.
Only two weeks before, Sharon had described Abbas as a ”chicken without feathers” for failing to swiftly crack down on militants opposed to a negotiated peace.
Abbas said before Tuesday's talks he would tell Sharon that Israel must begin dismantling Jewish settlements, free Palestinian prisoners and lift a clampdown on West Bank cities to go forth on the “road map”.
”We are still at the beginning of the sensitive political process of implementing the road map,” Abbas told the Palestinian parliament after the truce was shaken by attacks.
An Israeli army spokesman said a Palestinian armed with a pistol opened fire at a military roadblock near the West Bank city of Tulkarm and was shot dead by soldiers.
A Bulgarian road worker was killed in a shooting attack on Monday in the West Bank claimed by a cell of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group affiliated to the Fatah faction of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
Arafat said Palestinian security forces had arrested those behind the ambush.
Israel pulled forces back from much of the Gaza Strip on Sunday and Monday, restoring general free movement for Palestinians for the first time in two-and-a-half years.
The withdrawal was part of a U.S.-mediated disengagement deal meant to advance the road map, which charts the way to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005.
Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz confirmed Israel would follow up by handing over the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Wednesday.
The road map requires Palestinian police to fill security vacuums wherever Israeli troops and tanks have pulled out.