Sharon May Negotiate Gaza With P.A. Leaders

For the first time, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has implied that the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and northern Shomron might not be totally unilateral after all.

, | updated: 4:19 PM

Speaking at a special gathering in his Jerusalem residence for some 100 mayors from around the country, Sharon said that he does not rule out some form of coordination with the new Palestinian Authority leadership, "if it fights terrorism and carries out reforms." Sharon has long said that because Israel has no "partner" in the PA with whom to negotiate, it was in Israel's best interest to simply pick up and leave areas that "in any event, under any future agreement, will not be in Israeli hands." He left unexplained the factual basis for this claim.

Following Arafat's death, many on both the right and left of the political spectrum have said that Sharon should suspend the plan, and should check whether a "partner" might actually arise within the PA. He rejected these calls, refusing last week to consider even a temporary freeze that would have kept the National Religious Party in the coalition.

Last night, however, Sharon gave the first indication that he would be willing to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority - i.e., negotiate with the new PA leaders - in return for "security assurances." Israel has suffered greatly over the past decade after having received similar assurances, and Sharon therefore emphasized that he would not make any concessions that might harm the security of Israeli citizens.

"Israel is interested in a diplomatic agreement, and will pay a high price," Sharon said. "However, Israel will make no concessions in the area of security, not now and not in the future, and certainly not while I am Prime Minister - and I do not plan to leave my job in the coming years."

Sharon also had some harsh words for his political opponents within the Likud Party. The Likud is facing internal elections this coming Sunday for several important posts, and Sharon's candidates - particularly Ministers Tzachi HaNegbi and Danny Naveh - are facing stiff competition from anti-disengagement candidates.

"Unfortunately, there is a group within the Likud that is acting in the Knesset against government decisions. This group has gotten smaller, but it still exists. There is an attempt to take over the Likud from the outside. There is incitement, threats and pressure on MKs. This situation is intolerable."

Michael Fuah, one of the heads of the Manhigut Yehudit faction to which Sharon was referring, said today that Sharon is right for being concerned. Speaking with Army Radio, Fuah said, "Using his sensitive political instincts, the Prime Minister realizes that the true threat today to his continued incumbency as the Likud party head comes not from the gallery of ministers lining up behind him, but only from Manhigut Yehudit."

Currently heading a minority government of only 55 MKs, Sharon said, "I have often said that I have no interest in expanding the coalition" - in accordance with the desire of most of the Likud faction - "but this obligates all the MKs to vote for Cabinet decisions and not to sabotage them. Everyone must ask himself if the Likud wants new elections. Either we hold on, or we go to new elections. In a complex year of important economic plans, evacuation of the Gaza Strip, and complex security problems, I think it would be a mistake to go to new elections."

Prime Minister Sharon further said that he prefers the agreement he made earlier this year with U.S. President George Bush over "new agreements with unknown Palestinian leaders."