Israelis, Palestinians Resume Talks with Aim of Opening Gaza Airport

As Israel and the Palestinians attempted to resume negotiations this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to head off the stirrings of another coalition crisis.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Palestinian Authority official Nabil Sha’ath met Wednesday night to discuss the opening of a Palestinian airport in the Gaza Strip.

The airport is one of the outstanding elements of the interim phase agreement signed by the two sides that must still be implemented.

The sides have been at odds over Israeli demands to maintain overall security supervision of the terminal.

Mordechai’s spokesman said after the talks, in which the Egyptian and U.S. ambassadors to Israel also took part, that the meeting was “effective” and had been conducted in a “positive and good atmosphere.”

The spokesman said Mordechai told Sha’ath that Foreign Minister David Levy, who is responsible for coordinating negotiations with the Palestinians, was drawing up a negotiating team and would soon approve the start of negotiations on the matter.

The discussions did not touch on some of the larger issues of contention in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, namely constructing in disputed territory.

The Palestinians broke off negotiations in mid-March, after Israel began building a new Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, sources in the Prime Minister’s Office were quoted in Israeli media as expressing concern that National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon might lead right-wing opposition against the opening of the airport.

He might also oppose further Israeli troop redeployment in the West Bank, which is scheduled for the fall under the interim accords.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted sources in the Prime Minister’s Office and senior Likud members as being worried that Sharon might act in response to Ya’acov Ne’eman’s appointment as finance minister this week.

After Dan Meridor resigned the post last month, Sharon had been the leading candidate. However, earlier this week, he was informed that the post would go to Ne’eman instead. Levy had fiercely opposed Sharon’s appointment.

Sharon stormed out of a meeting with Netanyahu after several minutes on Wednesday, which sources interpreted as a signal to the prime minister that he could create as embarrassing a situation for him as Sharon had felt with the Ne’eman appointment.

During a tour of the north on Thursday, Sharon sharply attacked the prime minister, accusing him of not consulting with him on security and political affairs.

For his part, Netanyahu said he hoped the two could meet again. Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office reiterated Netanyahu’s pledge to consult with Sharon on matters of importance.

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