Palestinian President Yasser Arafat said Saturday that peace remains the "strategic choice" of the Palestinians, and renewed calls for Israel to resume peace talks on the basis of existing agreements and understandings, said reports.
Arafat also addressed charges of corruption in the Palestinian Authority which has been a source of anger among Palestinians during the more than five months of violence with Israel, said AFP.
The discontent had exploded out into the open in January with the killing of the head of Palestinian television, Hisham Mekki, in a gangland style hit carried out by a Palestinian Islamist group.
"In spite of the efforts which go into facing the Israeli aggression, we are determined to continue to reform all the national institutions," Arafat told the parliament.
"Nobody is above the law nor has the right to interfere with justice. Let it be clear to all."
But the bulk of his speech was preoccupied by the challenges of the ongoing conflict with Israel, said the agency.
Arafat renewed calls for a lifting of the Israeli blockade on the Palestinian territories, which has choked the Palestinian economy, and for international troops to be stationed in the territories.
Arafat demanded that new Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon resume peace talks on the basis of "existing agreements and understandings" and to put an end to the "starvation and repression" of the Palestinian people, AFP said.
"Our choice of peace is a strategic choice," he said in his first speech to the Palestinian parliament since the deadly Intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation broke out in late September.
But Haaretz newspaper reported Sunday that Sharon refused to comment on Arafat's call for a resumption of peace talks and his expression of "understanding" for Israel's need for security.
Also, sources in Sharon's office denied that the prime minister has immediate plans to meet Arafat, saying there are no preparations under way for such a rendezvous.
“Sharon is ready to meet with Arafat only after the violence in the territories dies down,” the sources reiterated.
But the sources said Sharon has no objection to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres meeting with Arafat.
Peres was busy this weekend going over the documentation of all the previous government's contacts with the Palestinian Authority, said the paper.
Sources in his office said the foreign minister is not yet readying for a meeting with the PA chief.
However, the sources said, Peres found positive signs in Arafat's remarks, delivered at a session of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza.
A senior diplomatic source said that Arafat made a distinction between signed agreements, which must be respected, and informal understandings such as those reached at Camp David, "which must be taken into consideration."
According to the paper, the positive tone of Arafat's speech, and of Sharon's own inaugural speech last Wednesday, appeared to coincide as part of an effort to arrange a meeting between the two.
Despite the denials by Sharon's office Saturday, the United States, through a White House spokesman, said that both sides were engaged in a dialogue to somehow calm the ongoing violence.
Over the weekend, Sharon wrote to Arafat that he hoped to establish personal contacts very soon. But last night, sources in Sharon's office said the prime minister was "outraged" that his letter was leaked - and construed to mean that negotiations were to resume right away.
A senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the paper that efforts were under way to arrange a Sharon-Arafat meeting before Sharon's trip to the United States on March 20th.
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )