Anger as Sharon vetoes new peace talks with Arafat

War on Terrorism: Middle East
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The Independent Online

Israel's prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, provoked a crisis with the United States and with Labour ministers in his national unity coalition yesterday by vetoing a meeting between the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

The two Nobel peace prize laureates had planned to meet last night at Gaza airport.

The Americans had put pressure on Mr Sharon to authorise the talks as a means to cooling the atmosphere in the Middle East and making it easier for Arab and Muslim states to join George Bush's "global war on terror".

The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said later that he had spoken to Mr Sharon and believed the Israeli premier would authorise the Peres-Arafat meeting today.

The five other Labour ministers, including the Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, were standing behind Mr Peres last night. They hinted at mass resignation if Mr Sharon did not reverse his decision at an emergency meeting they are having with him this morning.

"There is no real partnership," said the Trade and Industry Minister, Dalia Itzik. "You can't agree to something in the morning, then disagree in the afternoon."

Ra'anan Cohen, Labour's secretary general, said: "If the Foreign Minister believes that it is important to talk to somebody, the Prime Minister has to let him."

The Palestinian Information Minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, denounced Mr Sharon's veto. "This is a gang, not a responsible government," he said. "If Peres asks for a meeting next time, we'll have to ask him, 'Who do you represent?'"

Ra'anan Gissin, Mr Sharon's spokesman, retorted: "Arafat failed to meet the minimal requirements – not to aid and abet terrorist activity and to take steps against it. Nothing can legitimise an act of terror. After the World Trade Centre bombing, people in the world have zero tolerance for terrorism. We also have zero tolerance."

Under intense international pressure, Mr Arafat ordered a ceasefire last Tuesday. Although the level of violence has dropped significantly, shooting and mortar attacks have continued against settlers and soldiers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has logged at least 25 since the supposed ceasefire. In most cases, its troops returned fire. They made a brief foray into Palestinian territory near Dir el-Balah in Gaza on Saturday night.

In the most serious Palestinian attack, a 26-year-old woman was shot dead near Bethlehem on Thursday and her husband badly wounded. Israel passed the name of the man it believed responsible to the Palestinian security services, who arrested him, then sent him home with a caution. The suspect, Atef Abidat, is a member of Mr Arafat's Al Fatah.

Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, announced on Saturday that it would suspend suicide bombings inside Israel, unless it was provoked by Israeli escalation. Mr Arafat had pressed Hamas not to make things more difficult for him with the Americans. A Hamas spokesman, Ismail Abu-Shnab, said: "We are operating on the basis of reality, keeping the Palestinian needs in sight." Hamas said nothing about attacks in the occupied territories.

Mr Gissin insisted that the ceasefire had to apply everywhere. He said: "Arafat can't be for terrorism and against terrorism at the same time."

Israel's Finance Minister, Silvan Shalom, led right-wing opposition to a Peres-Arafat meeting. "We have always told the public we would not negotiate under fire," Mr Shalom, a member of Mr Sharon's Likud party, said. "A meeting broadcasts the message that the shooting and killing can continue."

The Peres-Arafat talks had been thoroughly prepared. The Foreign Minister met two senior Palestinian negotiators, Ahmed Qurei and Saeb Erakat, in Tel Aviv on Saturday. They had already drafted a joint communiqué to increase the chances of success.

According to Israeli sources, it included a ceasefire, security co-operation, gradual movement towards a renewal of peace talks, redeployment of Israeli forces to positions held before the intifada violence began, opening roads between Palestinian towns and villages, and issuing permits for Palestinians to return to work in Israel.