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Sharon Leaves ‘em Guessing After Meeting with P.A. Officials

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s recent meeting with senior Palestinian officials has left politicians and pundits alike pondering his true intentions.

Observers are questioning whether the talks Sharon held Jan. 30 in his Jerusalem home were a tactical move aimed at pleasing the Bush administration on the eve of the prime minister’s trip to Washington later this week.

On the other hand, they wonder, perhaps those discussions reflected a shift in Sharon’s outlook and signal an openness for reviving a political dialogue with the Palestinians.

Dovish Israelis are welcoming the talks, but some hard-liners are saying Sharon should not be speaking to Palestinian leaders amid the ongoing violence.

In last week’s meeting, Sharon met with Palestinian parliamentary speaker Ahmed Karia, top PLO official Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Rashid, an economic adviser to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The talks were the first that Sharon, who has said he will not negotiate while Palestinians continue attacking Israel, has held with top Palestinians since taking office almost a year ago.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon stressed he had not changed his stance that there would be no negotiations while violence continues.

The meeting had focused on ways to end the violence, Sharon was quoted as telling the ministers. He did not rule out another meeting following his return from Washington.

Sharon also told the Cabinet that he had used the meeting to set out Israeli security demands and to tell the Palestinians that he would consider their requests based on the Palestinian Authority’s progress in cracking down on terror.

Sharon said he is ultimately interested in reaching a final settlement with the Palestinians, but without a timetable. Any accord would depend upon developments in the Israel-Palestinian relationship, he said.

Sharon also said the Palestinian delegation had demanded that Israel halt its targeted assassinations, end military incursions into areas under Palestinian-control and lift travel restrictions on Arafat, who has been confined to Ramallah by Israeli troops since December.

Some Israeli commentators suggested Sharon’s meeting last week was aimed at heading off diplomatic initiatives launched by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and, more recently, by Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg.

Peres learned of Sharon’s meeting with the Palestinian officials as he was en route to the World Economic Forum in New York, where he had his own meeting with Karia.

At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Sharon reportedly reiterated his objections to a proposal Peres and Karia have been discussing, which includes the idea that Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state should be the starting point for renewed negotiations.

But is this Sharon’s real stand? The Israeli daily Ma’ariv quoted diplomatic sources as saying that Sharon and Peres are in quiet agreement over most of the elements of the proposal under discussion.

Weekend interviews Sharon gave to two Israeli newspapers added to the confusion.

In an interview with Ma’ariv, he conceded he would agree to giving up parts of the “Greater Land of Israel” under certain conditions in a final settlement.

But he also told Yediot Achronot that he would recommend while in Washington that the Bush administration refrain from all contacts with Arafat.

“I plan to tell President Bush next week, ‘I advise you to ignore Arafat. Boycott him. Don’t have any contact with him and don’t send him delegations,’ ” Sharon said last Friday.

Israeli troops have kept Arafat under virtual house arrest in Ramallah in an effort to force him to crack down on terror.

As a result, Arafat has been kept from his globetrotting activities aimed at drumming up support for the Palestinian cause.

Just the same, Arafat got a chance this week to address a wide audience.

In an Op-Ed appearing in The New York Times on Sunday, Arafat reiterated what he would seek from an Israeli- Palestinian peace accord.

In the article, Arafat called for “an independent and viable Palestinian state,” sharing Jerusalem “as the capital of two states” and a “fair and just solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees.”

He also condemned Palestinian “terrorist groups” that attack Israeli targets and said he is “determined to put an end to their activities.”

In a swipe at Sharon, he also wrote, “Palestinians are ready to sit down now with any Israel leader, regardless of his history, to negotiate freedom for the Palestinians.”

In an effort to defend himself, Arafat referred to “the personal attacks on me” that are “currently in vogue” provide Israelis with an “excuse to ignore their own role in creating the current situation.”

Sharon said he was unswayed by Arafat’s article. “He talks incessantly. Certainly the comments were written in softer language, but he is excellent when it comes to talking,” Sharon told Israel’s Channel Two television.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell welcomed Arafat’s condemnation of terrorism, but added that more needs to be done.

Appearing Sunday on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation,” Powell applauded the remark, then added, “What we need is action against terrorists.”

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