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Israel claims coup in arms shipment

Sharon says weapons prove Palestinian Authority is preparing for war, but US envoy prods cease-fire talks.

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A drop in Israeli-Palestinian violence to its lowest level in 15 months is fueling US and European optimism about reaching a cease-fire.

But there is a huge gap between foreign perceptions of the potential for progress and Israeli views, especially after Israel's seizure of a boat, the Karine A, carrying 50 tons of munitions that it says originated in Iran and were on route to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is arguing that the ship's seizure proves the PA is preparing for war even as it speaks of a cease-fire. And his spokesman, Raanan Gissin, says the government "will be assessing policy in all aspects - political, diplomatic, and military toward the Palestinian Authority" in light of the boat's capture.

"When Arafat gave the instructions to purchase the firearms for the ship, he made a strategic choice to bring about regional deterioration that would lead to war," Mr. Sharon said Sunday, after Katyusha rockets, antitank weaponry, and mines were displayed in what journalists said was a festive atmosphere.

Sharon cited the seizure of the ship as proof that he was right to veto a peace initiative last month by which President Moshe Katsav would have addressed Palestinian legislators in Ramallah.

But the episode has not, at least thus far, made the ripple against the PA Israel hoped for in terms of international opinion, in part because Israel has not furnished proof of its allegations of involvement by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and has not as yet received clear public US endorsement for its charges.

The captain of the ship, Omar Akawi, a former officer in the Palestinian naval police, said in an interview from his prison in Ashkelon - shown on Israeli television - that he had received his instructions for the journey from a Palestine Liberation Organization representative in Athens.

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