Front-running candidate Mahmoud Abbas called Thursday for peace talks with Israel after this weekend's Palestinian presidential election, a sharp contrast to days of hard-line campaign pronouncements that included his labeling Israel the "Zionist enemy."
Abbas changed his tone in an unlikely place: the West Bank city of Nablus, a stronghold of militant groups and semiautonomous armed gangs that rule refugee camps and neighborhoods and carry out bloody attacks on Israelis.
At a news conference, Abbas said that after Sunday's election he would welcome peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is vilified by many Palestinians because of harsh Israeli measures during the current conflict.
"After the elections, we will start negotiations," Abbas said. "Ariel Sharon is an elected leader and we will negotiate with him. We will put the "road map' on the table and say that we are ready to implement it completely."
The internationally backed "road map," which envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, was presented in June 2003. Implementation quickly stalled because Palestinians failed to disarm violent groups and Israel did not dismantle dozens of unauthorized West Bank outposts and freeze construction in veteran settlements.
Militants appeared ready to give Abbas a chance. Ala Sanakra, a local leader of al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a violent offshoot of Abbas' Fatah movement, said Abbas wants to negotiate a cease-fire with Israel. Sanakra said his militants would go along if Israel stops its military activity.
During the campaign, Abbas, 69, has worked hard to expand his constituency, trying to attract younger, more militant Palestinians with hard-line statements identifying with gunmen and backing the right of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants _ about 4-million people _ to return to the homes they lost in the 1948-49 war after Israel's creation.
Such stands are anathema to Israel, which demands implementation of the "road map" to eliminate the groups responsible for attacks against Israelis and rejects the "right of return" as an attempt to undermine the Jewish state.
Abbas hit a rhetorical peak Tuesday, when he reacted to the death of seven Palestinians from Israeli tank shells by denouncing the "Zionist enemy," a term usually used only by Islamic militants.
However, even then, Abbas also criticized militants for firing rockets and mortars at Israel. The lethal tank fire followed a Palestinian mortar barrage.
Israeli officials welcomed the new tone. "The prime minister has said that immediately after the elections he will meet with whoever gets elected to coordinate security issues, and maybe also to coordinate the disengagement plan," said a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.