Palestinians doubt Israel's political regrouping will help their cause

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The Independent Online

Leading Palestinians guardedly welcomed the changed political landscape in Israel yesterday - while expressing deep scepticism about Ariel Sharon's willingness to use his new party to establish a lasting peace.

At the same time, two prominent Palestinian politicians said they believed the new Labour leader, Amir Peretz, neither should nor would form a post-election coalition with the Israeli Prime Minister's new party.

Ghassan al-Khatib, the Palestinian Planning minister, said recent political developments in Israel were "healthy" because "Israel had been moving to a one-party regime". Dr Al-Khatib added: "Having some opposition is good; internal difficulties for Sharon are not necessarily bad for Palestinians. He has been neglecting the need to negotiate with the Palestinians and has instead been consolidating the occupation of the West Bank, where the large majority of Palestinians are, and that is not a successful formula for peace."

Dr Al-Khatib said he thought that tactically and politically Mr Sharon had made "a smart move" by breaking away from Likud, but added: "He now has some opposition from the Labour Party ... Shimon Peres [the former Labour leader] has not been presenting any challenge to the Likud." He thought Mr Peretz would conduct a "strategy of opposition" and resist any coalition overtures from Mr Peretz.

That view was echoed by the independent Palestinian Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi, who suggested that Mr Peretz would rebuild Labour as a party of opposition until such time as he could form a coalition with the left-wing Yahad party, led by Yossi Beilin and Arab parties in the Knesset.

Ms Ashrawi said that when Labour has joined Likud in the past, "it has either ended up as apologists for them like [ousted Labour leader] Shimon Peres, or done their dirty work for them like [former Defence minister Binyamin] Ben Eliezer."

Sa'id Zidani, a prominent Palestinian political scientist, predicted that Mr Sharon would head the biggest party after the election and added that the political arithmetic would determine his post-election stance. He added: "The silent majority in Israel supports Sharon and will support Sharon if he moves towards the left." He added that the change in Labour's leadership was "good for the non-privileged classes in Israel and for the peace process."

But another independent PLC member, Abdel Jawad Saleh, said: "[Mr Sharon] still has his own right-wing agenda."