Sharon met Palestinian speaker on plan for withdrawal by Israel

Rivals may be preparing for U.S. role after Iraqi war

February 09, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a rare face-to-face meeting with the speaker of the Palestinian parliament last week, proposed a way to gradually end the eight-month army occupation of Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

The meeting with Ahmed Qurei, known as Abu Ala, took place Wednesday at Sharon's desert ranch. First reported on Israeli Radio yesterday, it was confirmed by Palestinian sources and by an Israeli diplomatic source.

Officials on both sides said high-level meetings could resume this week. No timetable was put forward. It could take weeks or months of negotiations before it's decided whether Israeli troops should pull back.

Dov Weisglass, the deputy general of Sharon's office, declined to confirm that the meeting occurred. But in a radio interview yesterday, he outlined the proposal to curb violence and slowly restore self-rule to Palestinians living under curfews the Israeli army imposes.

"Everywhere the Palestinians succeed in preventing attacks or showing that they are making serious efforts to do so, Israel will act accordingly by changing its military deployments or by easing restrictions on trade and movement," Weisglass said.

Israel's army, which took over most West Bank cities after a series of suicide bombings in June, has withdrawn from Palestinian areas before, such as Bethlehem, only to return after attacks by militants resumed.

"We've had many disappointments," Weisglass said. "Now also the level of expectation is low."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in brief comments yesterday to reporters outside of his office in Ramallah, would not say whether the meeting took place. But he said, "We will deal with all parties for the sake of peace."

Israeli Radio reported yesterday that U.S. Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer attended another meeting last week involving Weisglass and Palestinian Interior Minister Hani al-Hassan, and suggested that its aim was to achieve quiet ahead of an American attack on Iraq.

It appears that Sharon is trying to lay the foundation for a post-Iraqi war period, when he and Palestinian leaders expect U.S. officials to refocus on resolving their conflict. Both sides say they believe that peace is an inevitable byproduct.

Weisglass said the war would force the Palestinians to realize that Arafat's time has passed and that new leaders would be ushered in to negotiate a settlement. Palestinians say that after an Iraqi war, the world will force Israel to forge an agreement with Arafat.

Another possibility is that the surprise gesture is a political maneuver. Sharon, whose Likud Party won a landslide victory in the Jan. 28 election, is struggling to form a unity government with the center-left Labor Party, whose leaders have rejected invitations to join a coalition.

Weisglass said diplomatic overtures with the Palestinian Authority could help persuade Labor leaders, who are pushing to resume diplomatic talks, that Sharon is interested in pursuing peace and that he should be considered a partner.

Israeli officials described Wednesday's meeting as related to security and stressed that it did not violate Sharon's firm stance against conducting political negotiations "under fire" or while Arafat remains in power.

Sharon has repeatedly said, however, that his office remains open to Palestinian leaders who want to stop the fighting and reform their government. Israelis have considered Abu Ala, a top negotiator, as a moderate with whom they could talk and a possible successor to Arafat.

Palestinian leaders are reluctant to admit they are cooperating with Sharon, who openly calls for Arafat's ouster and has called the leader irrelevant. They say politics, not a sudden willingness to launch a cease-fire bid, is behind the gesture.

"That's why we should not be part of this game," said Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib. "We should only be willing to negotiate when Sharon is ready to accept signed agreements. Any kind of withdrawal is a good idea, but Sharon is busy completing his reoccupation. There are no signs that he wants to stop."

But talks have been held in the past. Before last month's elections, Sharon met with Arafat's top deputy, Abu Mazen, and has sent his son, Omri, to many discussions with Palestinian leaders.

Few details of Sharon's meeting could be ascertained yesterday. Abu Ala's office did not return phone calls.

Weisglass said that in exchange for quiet, the army would allow in goods and give permits for Palestinian workers to enter Israel. He also noted that Israeli military leaders were pleased with attempts last week by Palestinian police in Gaza to prevent militant groups from launching missiles into settlements and communities.

The plan is similar to one that was implemented in Bethlehem last year. It failed after several weeks when a suicide bomber from a nearby village infiltrated Jerusalem and blew up a bus, killing 11 passengers. The army reoccupied Bethlehem the next day. Weisglass said the new proposal would work in much the same way, but in smaller areas and at a much slower pace.

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