Sharon attacked from all sides over plan for peace summit

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, was rebuffed yesterday by the Palestinians and his right-wing constituency.

Mahmoud Abbas, his Palestinian counterpart, is making him sweat before accepting his invitation to a second one-to-one summit. The meeting on the international road-map for peace, originally scheduled for today, may now take place tomorrow. Or it may not.

Israeli officials shrugged off the Palestinian postponement of the Sharon-Abbas talks. They took at face value the claim that Mr Abbas (known as Abu Mazen) was too busy meeting foreign statesmen.

However, Israeli commentators detected the hand of Yasser Arafat and the power struggle that is raging between him and Mr Abbas as progress on the road-map inches forward. The Palestinian President was demanding that Mr Abbas consult the Fatah leadership before sitting down again with Mr Sharon. The liberal Haaretz daily paper said: "The goal of the consultations is to make clear that the source of legitimacy for talks with Israel is not Abu Mazen, but rather the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Arafat himself."

Preparations are already under way for a three-way summit between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers and George Bush. That summit will take place early next month, probably in Egypt or Jordan. Silvan Shalom, Israel's Foreign Minister, said concrete results could be expected. "The President would not bother coming all the way out here to leave without a decision of some kind."

Meanwhile, Mr Sharon toned down the language of a statement he made on Monday - unprecedented for a Likud prime minister - that incensed the Israeli right. In it, he said: "The idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians and bad of the Israeli economy." In case the Likud MPs had misheard, he added: "Yes, it is occupation."

But, after Mr Sharon had forced through his reluctant cabinet an acceptance of the road-map for a Palestinian state, the o-word was too much for the far right to take. And the Foreign Ministry was reported to be cabling its embassies that henceforth they could admit Israel was not just "administering" the territories but "occupying" them.

Yesterday, a contrite Prime Minister told the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee: "People did not understand me." His spokesman issued a "clarification" that Mr Sharon "meant that we do not want to rule over the Palestinian population in the disputed areas".

In the West Bank, Israeli troops killed a 16-year-old they said was throwing a firebomb. Palestinian hospital officials said two children, aged seven and nine, were critically wounded in clashes with the army.

The Israeli army admitteda bullet fired by troops had unintentionally hit a diplomatic vehicle in the Gaza Strip. A Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Monday that a vehicle carrying its representative to the Palestinian Authority was fired on by Israelis.