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Mideast War Of Words Heats Up

A Palestinian official on Friday accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of trying to sabotage Palestinian talks with U.S. officials by branding the Palestinian Authority a "terror gang" in a televised speech.

Three Palestinian cabinet ministers met Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on Thursday, pledging new efforts to end 22 months of Middle East violence.

But the two sides remained at odds over President Bush's call in June for Palestinians to replace Arafat, their elected president, with a new leadership. Palestinian ministers also sought a firm timetable to statehood.

Political commentators said Sharon's speech was aimed at shoring up his popularity after the surge in Palestinian attacks.

Sharon's approval rating dropped by nine percent, according to a newspaper poll out Friday. CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger reports 57 percent of Israelis polled said Sharon is doing a good job, down from 66 percent a month earlier.

A commentary accompanying the poll attributed the drop to a mounting sense among Israelis that there is no end in sight to nearly two years of bloodshed. Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest newspaper, said if the situation doesn't improve, Sharon's popularity will plummet further.

Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman said Sharon's speech to a graduating class at Israel's Defense College on Thursday was timed to interfere with the Palestinian delegation's visit to Washington.

"He wanted to warn the Americans against reaching any agreement with the Palestinian delegation by describing Palestinian Authority officials as people (who are) against peace," Abdel Rahman said. "If we are like that, why are we in the States now exerting every possible effort to reach a way out?"

Sharon declared in his speech that he would not negotiate with the Palestinian leadership and said Palestinian leaders would have to be removed before there could be an end to fighting that has lasted nearly two years.

"Between us and the goal is the terror gang, the terror and the corruption of the Palestinian Authority," he said. "This gang does not want peace with Israel.

"The only way to peace is to remove this murderous gang from its political position," Sharon said.

Palestinians say that Sharon is not serious about peace talks, and is seeking to undermine Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

Three Palestinian Cabinet ministers traveled to Washington this week for meetings with U.S. officials. Yasser Arafat's recently appointed interior minister, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, was preparing to meet CIA Director George J. Tenet on Saturday.

Those talks were expected to focus on a plan to improve the Palestinian security arm.

U.S. officials confirmed Friday that a CIA team met secretly with Palestinian officials and formulated a detailed plan for security reforms. The plan was submitted to the Bush administration last week and recommended profound changes in the operations of the Palestinian security services, the officials said. The team did not meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Also Friday, Israeli soldiers conducting searches in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya found a belt rigged with crude explosives, the type that suicide bombers commonly strap to their bodies, the military said.

In Washington, a Palestinian delegation headed by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat met with U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell Thursday.

Erekat rejected U.S. calls to replace Arafat and accused Israel of harming Palestinian efforts to hold elections and institute reforms. He said the only alternative to Arafat was "chaos," adding the only solution was an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In a news conference Thursday, Yehiyeh, the Palestinian interior minister, appealed to Israel not to retaliate for suicide bombings to give the Palestinian Authority the chance to go after extremists.

Since late June, Israeli troops have occupied seven of the eight major West Bank towns and cities, hoping to crush militant groups and keep their followers from attacking Israeli cities.

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