Worthy Christian News » Israel-Palestinian Conflict » Sharon Rapped for Contacts with Arafat Crony
A new political tempest erupted in Israel after it was learned that representatives of Likud prime ministerial candidate Ariel Sharon secretly met in Vienna on Thursday with a key economic adviser to PLO chief Yasser Arafat, raising the ire of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and even members of Sharon's own Knesset faction caught off guard by the meeting.
Sharon has acknowledged he sent his son and close adviser, Omri, his lawyer, Dov Weissglass, and former Foreign Ministry director-general Eitan Bentsur to Vienna for a meeting with Arafat's top financial adviser, Mohammed Rashid yesterday. But Sharon insisted that Arafat's side initiated the meeting because they wanted to know his stance on major issues before the election, and he denied that any negotiations took place.
"I guess that even Arafat reads the polls," Sharon said, referring to this week's results which showed him retaining a substantial 16-20% lead over Barak. "I did not and will not negotiate under fire and terror like the Barak government, which will pay any price to obtain a piece of paper to help him win the election. The meeting was held to present my diplomatic plan and red lines, which are already well-known."
But Barak blasted the meeting as hypocritical in light of Sharon's criticism of the on-going peace talks in Taba and said it was also improper because it took place prior to the funerals of the two restaurant owners from Tel Aviv murdered in Tulkarm on Tuesday. Barak also slammed Sharon for not informing the government or security services about the meeting in what he called a move of "diplomatic subversion."
"The government has no choice but to negotiate, because is responsible for stopping the violence and must talk to everyone possible to prevent there being more graves," Barak said. "But here it is Opposition officials, who are rushing at their own initiative to foreign cities and hidden hotels on a day when we are burying people, when at the same time they are preaching to the public that it is forbidden to negotiate under fire."
Barak's remarks rang a bit hollow, as he decided to continue the resumed Taba talks Thursday evening, at the same time a Jerusalem man killed by Palestinians in a drive-by shooting near Atarot was being buried. In addition, it has become rather routine for leading members of the Opposition in Israel to meet with Arab officials, even during the heat of an election season, and Barak did so himself prior to winning the premiership in May 1999.
Sharon had kept the rendezvous quiet, and even senior campaign staffers like MKs Silvan Shalom and Limor Livnat were shocked to hear about it afterwards on the radio. Unnamed Likud sources were especially miffed about the high profile use of Omri Sharon, who they said was unexperienced in diplomatic matters.
Some Palestinian sources claimed Arafat was unaware of meeting, and suggested that Sharon arranged it for the sole purpose of discussing ways of reopening the Jericho casino, which is a big money-maker for the Palestinian Authority. A PLO official in Vienna, Faisal Awadi, said executives of Casino Austria, the company which runs the casino, participated in the talks. Weissglass, in addition to being Sharon's lawyer, represents the casino.
But Sharon, Weissglass, and Bentsur all denied that the casino came up for discussion. When Barak charged Sharon with putting his personal interests first, MK Tzvi Hendel (National Union) noted that Barak had appointed Yossi Ginossar as a political emissary with the Palestinians, despite his major economic investments with the PA.
Shalom put a positive spin on the meeting, saying "it destroys the entire Barak propaganda campaign, which was based on the claim that if Sharon is elected there will be no contacts, no negotiations, and an immediate war. We saw it in Barak's campaign commercials. That is the real reason why Barak was so pained by the meeting."
ISRAEL RADIO reported Friday morning that Palestinian sources also claim that Sharon's representatives in the Vienna meeting disclosed that his advisor on Arab affairs, Magali Wahaba, was secretly visiting the Persian Gulf. Sharon's office refused to comment on the report today.
Also in the race for prime minister, Sharon on Thursday accused Barak of indirectly causing the recent wave of Palestinian violence by showing weakness in the manner in which he withdrew the IDF from Lebanon last May. "I have tough things to say about the way we left, which influenced, in my opinion, what happened later on, and the feelings of the Palestinians, our neighbors," Sharon told a Federation of Chambers of Commerce forum. "We did not act the way an independent country is supposed to act."
Sharon maintained that the hasty IDF retreat in the face of Hizb'Allah attacks exhibited weakness to the Palestinians, which only fed their calculations that terrorist actions and guerrilla tactics could be successfully used to also drive Israel from Judea/Samaria and Gaza. Numerous Palestinian and even Israeli Arab leaders have advocated that very line ever since the May withdrawal.
The remarks denote a shift in the Sharon campaign towards a more aggressive response to the Barak camp's constant barrage of negative attacks. The Sharon team especially was upset by a particularly sharp TV ad for Barak on Tuesday that described step by step how a Sharon victory would lead to an all-out regional war.
Responding to the Barak campaign's repeated use of the Lebanon War in its ads, Sharon addressed the Sabra and Shatilla killings for the first time since the race began. "What happened in Lebanon, which we didn't have any connection to or anything, was that Christian Arabs killed Muslim Arabs," Sharon said.
Sharon said that by October 1982, Israeli forces had already withdrawn from major Christian locations in southern Lebanon. At that point he recommended leaving Lebanon and continued to advocate a negotiated withdrawal for years, but that various prime ministers and IDF chiefs of General Staff disagreed.
Barak's own polling data now shows that with his opponent carrying a majority of the Russian immigrant vote, Barak's only hope of winning is if 75% of Israeli Arabs come out and vote for him, while only a minimal number of the ultra-Orthodox turn out for Sharon. As of this late date, most of the Arab sector still plans to follow the advice of their leaders and either stay home or cast a blank ballot in protest of the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs in rioting against Israeli police this past Rosh Hashana. Barak ran into an angry Arab protest during a campaign stop in Nazareth on Wednesday, where he expressed "sorrow" for the 13 deaths, but still refused to take direct responsibility and apologize for them.
In results made public today, the Barak campaign poll showed Sharon 48% to Barak 35%, with 17% undecided. A JERUSALEM POST poll shows Sharon up 44% to 28%, with 28% undecided or not voting. A YEDIOT AHARONOT poll shows Sharon up 49% to 32%, with 19% undecided. And a MA'ARIV poll shows Sharon up 52% to 34%, with 14% undecided. Most of the undecided voters are weighing their disgust for Barak with their apprehensions about Sharon.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.