Sharon says Mitchell report basis for resolving conflict

Israel's prime minister has called on the Palestinians to agree to an immediate ceasefire. "Stop the violence and you will find us a serious and responsible partner for peace," Ariel Sharon told Israelis and Palestinians on Tuesday night.

Sharon praised the Mitchell report saying it provides a sound basis for resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But in the face of mounting international pressure, Sharon also rejected a key aspect of the report.

Sharon appeared on prime time television in Israel and his message was tailored for a domestic audience, although he knew the world was watching.

Stressing that the violence of the last eight months was a Palestinian decision, taken by Palestinian leaders after the failure of Camp David, Sharon said the Israeli government will strive to achieve security for its citizens.

Then he called for a ceasefire with the Palestinians. "We will achieve peace only if we talk," he said. "Stop the violence and you will find us a serious and responsible partner for peace."

Sharon endorsed the Mitchell committee report that studied the conflict between the two sides. He accepts the committee's timetable for ending the conflict.

First and foremost, the Mitchell committee called for an immediate end to the violence, followed by a cooling off period. During that period the two sides are to undertake confidence-building measures, such as resumption of joint-security patrols, an end to Israeli blockades and the ban on Palestinian workers in Israel. Eventually, under this plan, peace talks would resume.

But the Mitchell report also calls on Israel to end the building of settlements on occupied land.

Sharon says that's an issue for Israelis and Palestinians to settle through negotiations.

International pressure on Israel is growing to stop building and expanding settlements. "I think that is a problem for peace. What we're calling for is to freeze the settlements and to try to get engaged with the Palestinians through that commitment," said Javier Solana, the European Union representative for foreign and political affairs, and a member of the committee.

On his recent visit to the region, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley added his voice to the anti-settlement chorus. "Canada believes," he said, "that the settlement building in the territories absolutely needs to stop as a condition of the peace process resuming."

Palestinian reaction to Sharon's speech was predictably negative. Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, called it deceitful. "He selected one element and stressed about it and tried to say the other things would be discussed even though the Mitchell report specified that there is no chance of seriousness without a full freeze of settlement activities."

For Israel, the key element is an end to Palestinian violence and Erakat is not saying much about when or even if the Palestinian Authority can stop it.

After Sharon's speech violence flared again in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo, a continuing flashpoint in the bitter conflict.