Sharon set to end 15-month boycott of Palestinian leadership
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was set to end his 15-month boycott of the Palestinian leadership after expressing a willingness to meet new PLO chief and presidential favourite Mahmud Abbas.
Ahead of an expected meeting between both sides' foreign ministers in The Hague, Sharon told Newsweek magazine that he was ready to meet with the post-Yasser Arafat leadership whenever they wanted.
"When they would like to meet, we will meet," he said.
Abbas for his part also told the news weekly that "after the elections, I'm ready to meet at any time with Sharon".
Sharon, who completely boycotted Arafat, met several times with the then Palestinian prime minister Abbas last year but severed all contacts in August 2003 in the aftermath of a massive suicide bomb in Jerusalem.
He has since said that he would only consider a resumption of ties when he was convinced that the Palestinians were prepared to crack down on militant groups behind a wave of anti-Israeli during the four-year uprising.
A source close to Sharon said that the government wanted to give the new Palestinian leadership "time to take control of the situation" and help ensure the smooth running of the January 9 election to replace Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority.
The elections issue was expected to feature in any discussions on Monday between Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his Palestinian counterpart Nabil Shaath.
Both men were due to attend a conference in The Hague on Monday where they are expected to meet on the sidelines for have their first talks since the death of Arafat.
Shalom played host to a series of top overseas dignatories last week, including US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, last week as part of a frenzy of diplomatic activity designed to capitalise on Arafat's death and breathe life into the troubled peace process.
A foreign ministry source confirmed that he would also meet here on Wednesday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, for talks which were initially lined up for last week but which were postponed after the killing of three Egyptian police by the Israeli army.
The two governments have been liasing closely over next year's pullout with both countries keen to prevent Islamist groups stepping into any vacuum after next year's withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers.
Abbas and Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei were themselves in Cairo Sunday where they were due to hold talks in Cairo with President Hosni Mubarak.
Abbas is the overwhelming favourite to win the January 9 election, despite lacking widespread public support, after being chosen by the dominant Fatah faction as its candidate.
His path was cleared on Friday when the charismatic Fatah chief in the West Bank, Marwan Barghuti, declared that he had decided not to contest the ballot from behind bars in an Israeli prison where he is currently serving five life sentences.
The radical Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both opponents of the 1993 Oslo accords which led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority, had already said that they would not contest the campaign.
In a further boost to his campaign, Abbas won the endorsement Sunday of the radical Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades movement, an armed offshoot of Fatah which Israel says is headed by Barghuti.
"We announce our commitment and complete support to our brother Abu Mazen (Abbas) who we believe will implement the will of the Palestinian people," the Brigades said in a statement sent to AFP.
Al-Aqsa's statement said that it was essential that the Palestinians remain united but also appealed for reforms to be carried out, especially within Fatah.
Fatah, the movement founded and headed by Arafat until his death two weeks ago, said Friday it would hold its first internal elections in almost two decades next August in what was seen as a gesture to Barghuti and his supporters.