Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is downplaying the significance of ongoing talks between his Foreign Minister and Palestinian Authority officials, which according to reports, call for the declaration of an independent Palestinian state within eight weeks.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has been meeting with Palestinian parliament speaker Ahmed Qurei, and the two have developed what media reports have called a "plan" to declare a Palestinian state possibly within eight weeks.
There was some confusion this week when Sharon initially condemned the plan as doing "severe damage" to Israel and then later admitted the talks were being conducted with his knowledge.
Peres, one of the architect's of the Oslo peace accords, which are in shambles after 15 months of bloodshed, is known for holding secret talks and coming up with compromise plans.
But Sharon advisor, Ra'anan Gissin, denied on Friday that such a plan existed and said that Israel is still demanding a complete halt to violence before any diplomatic talks can begin.
"There is no plan," Gissin said by telephone. "It's an exchange of ideas on the way to a ceasefire... After it is discussed in the cabinet then it can be a plan."
Sharon has reportedly said that he will discuss the idea of a Palestinian state in the cabinet on Sunday, Israel radio reported.
Sharon described the ideas as being without "weight or validity" on Thursday. "Before there is a complete cease-fire, there will be no diplomatic negotiations," he said.
Gissin said Peres' ideas may be "helpful" in the future but right now there must first be a complete ceasefire.
PA negotiator Nabil Sha'ath described the so-called plan at length at a press conference in the Gaza Strip, saying the two sides needed to agree on a framework agenda and then move on to implementing understandings drafted earlier by CIA Chief George Tenet and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.
The goal "is to find a political way out of the current crisis and not focus on security matters as Sharon always stressed," Sha'ath said.
Tenet's ceasefire was the first step in the Mitchell recommendations, which called for a complete halt to violence, followed by a cooling-off period, confidence building measures and a return to negotiations.
Sha'ath said the second step in the plan would be discussion on when a Palestinian state would be declared. Peres reportedly suggested it should be declared soon on 42 percent of the West Bank and most of the Gaza Strip.
But the Palestinians want to wait until negotiations are completed and declare a state on all the territory, which was occupied by Jordan and Egypt, prior to 1967. Some 200,000 Israelis live in Jewish communities in those areas and Israel has not agreed to give them up.
Within eight weeks, final status negotiations would be launched, Sha'ath said, on the thorniest issues of Jerusalem, refugees, borders and Jewish settlements. Those talks would last no longer than nine months to a year.
But Gissin said that the proposals go far beyond the reality of the current situation.
"We don't have a ceasefire yet," Gissin said. "Setting deadlines creates pressure." He asked how the Palestinians would arrest all the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure in just eight weeks when they haven't even started to do so yet.
According to an online poll taken by the Jerusalem Post, and published in the paper on Friday, 76 percent of 7,181 respondents said they did not "support Shimon Peres' plan to recognize a Palestinian State." Twenty-four percent of readers supported the plan. (The respondents are not necessarily Israelis.)
Earlier this week the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion released the results of a recent poll, showing that 54.2 percent of Palestinians support a continuation of the intifadah (uprising), 33.5 percent wanted to see it stop and another 12.3 percent expressed no opinion.
Less than half, 46.3 percent support the notion that the peace process is the best thing for the Palestinians considering the current conditions, i.e. international changes.
Sharon acknowledged on Thursday that the number of terror attacks had decreased. His office released figures showing that since Arafat's speech nearly two weeks ago, in which he called for a halt to violence and suicide bombings, there have been 116 terror attacks, killing one Israeli and wounding 14 others.
Maj.-Gen. Amos Malka, who retired as head of military Intelligence Thursday called the current situation a "virtual ceasefire," which was more of a "declaration than an operation."
"The ceasefire will come only if the Palestinian side mounts real operations against terrorism, against leaders and operators and infrastructures and supporters," Malka said.
The PA has complained that strict Israeli closures prevent them from fighting terror.
Meanwhile, overnight Israeli troops shot at a terrorist in the Gaza Strip, after hearing an explosion. According to the army spokeswoman, when the body was found this morning, soldiers discovered it had been girded with an explosive belt.
The terrorist was carrying a Kalachnikov rifle and a portable missile launcher, apparently on the way to carry out a terror attack.
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer ordered the easing of the closure around Bethlehem on Thursday in honor of the Christmas holidays.
However, Gissin said that Arafat would not be allowed to travel to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, for the Orthodox Christmas celebration on January 6 unless he had arrested the murderers of a government minister.
Arafat, who has been unable to move from Ramallah, since Israel destroyed his helicopters in a retaliatory raid several weeks ago, was barred from traveling to Bethlehem for midnight mass on December 24 for the same reasons.
Arafat, a Muslim, has attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve at St. Catherine's every year since the PA took over Bethlehem in 1995.\plain\f2\fs23