PA Meets With Israel's Opposition Leader

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - With Israeli elections for prime minister less than two weeks away, opposition Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon confirmed Thursday that he had sent three representatives to Vienna for talks with one of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's closest advisors.

Israel and the PA resumed negotiations in Taba, Egypt on Thursday, amid reports that Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat may meet in Davos, Switzerland over the weekend, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum summit.

Sharon, who has maintained a double-digit lead over Barak throughout the short campaign for elections on February 6, said the meeting in the Austrian capital came at the initiative of Arafat himself.

"There were appeals to hold a meeting because they wanted to know my position," Sharon said in a radio interview. The meeting was subsequently held with Arafat and senior economic advisor Khaled Salam.

Barak accused Sharon of "negotiating under fire," turning around allegations the Likud has leveled against the prime minister for allowing negotiations in Taba while violence continued, and just ahead of an election.

Earlier this week Barak suspended the Taba talks after two Israelis were abducted Tuesday by suspected Palestinian gunmen and shot dead. The negotiations are to resume Thursday, following the funerals of the two.

Although Hamas initially claimed responsibility for the double murder, the PA later arrested members of Arafat's own Fatah faction in connection with the incident.

Barak's office said the talks would now continue "for several more days" and then stop until after elections.

Sharon and the Arabs

The meeting between Sharon's representatives and a PA official suggest the PA is preparing itself for a changeover of government in Israel.

In an address via satellite to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York Wednesday, Sharon said he has initiated quiet contacts with unspecified Arab countries.

The Likud leader is trying hard to live down the image of warmonger and Arab hater, which has been aggravated by constant references to his role as defense minister during the 1982 Israeli invasion into Lebanon.

Nevertheless, analysts say Sharon may win not because the public is voting for him, but because they are against Barak, who has led the nation to a situation of "vulnerability" it has not known since its 1948 war of independence.

According to political analyst, Akiva Eldar, Sharon's plan for peace includes a Palestinian state in no more than 45 per cent of the disputed West Bank, comprising a series of enclaves connected by tunnels and bridges.

But PA spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said that the Palestinians would have no qualms in rejecting any peace offer not meeting their expectations, no matter who it comes from. The Palestinians are no more afraid of Sharon than they are of Barak, she said.

"Barak left us with little to fear from Sharon," Ashrawi said at a press briefing in reference to the last four months of violence and terrorism, in which more than 300 Palestinians have been killed, as well as nearly 50 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs.

"Barak gave us offer we have to refuse," Ashrawi said. "Sharon is going to give us an offer we have to refuse. Neither reached the understanding [yet] of what is needed to bring peace." She predicted that Sharon's government, should he win - or indeed any government in Israel - would not last long.

Speaking at a forum on the upcoming elections, Eldar, who is a columnist for the left-leaning Ha'aretz newspaper, agreed that Sharon's tenure would not likely be a long-term one.

He predicted that the next elections would be between former Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a new Labor Party leader.