Israel's new leader Ariel Sharon met his defeated foe Ehud Barak yesterday to discuss forming a coalition strong enough to face a Palestinian revolt.
A spokesman for Sharon's Likud party had said they would discuss "coalition issues," but a statement from Barak's office after the two-hour meeting mentioned only a "diplomatic and security update" as well as talks on the transfer of power.
Leaders of Barak's Labour party said they wanted Sharon to explain how he would make peace with the Palestinians, who are waging a four-month-old revolt against Israeli occupation.
Palestinian protesters burned an Israeli flag and an effigy of Sharon in the West Bank town of Ramallah yesterday, witnesses said. Youngsters hurled stones and petrol bombs at Israeli troops in the divided city of Hebron.
Witnesses said about 200 flag-waving Jewish settlers staged a protest at Gush Etzion near the West Bank town of Bethlehem against last week's killing of a settler by Palestinian gunmen. No casualties were reported in the unrest or in overnight battles between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers guarding the Jewish settlement of Psagot in the West Bank.
Sharon, 72, crushed Barak in Tuesday's prime ministerial election on a pledge to halt Palestinian violence and renounce concessions offered by Barak in search of a peace deal.
The prime minister-elect spoke by telephone with senior Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, on Thursday night, a source in Sharon's office said.
"Abu Mazen expressed the will of the Palestinian leadership to resume the talks with Israel. Sharon told him that the condition for the resumption of talks was the complete halt to violence and terror," the source said.
He quoted Sharon as saying he was committed to the peace process, and willing to ease an Israeli economic blockade of Palestinian areas, but that violence must end first.
"We want to see the Palestinian Authority acting against the terror infrastructure ... I'm not an easy negotiator, but my word is my word and my red lines are very clear," Sharon said.
Palestinians launched their uprising against Israel after Sharon visited a Jerusalem site holy to both Muslims and Jews on Sept. 28. At least 318 Palestinians, 52 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed in violence since then.
The former general is reviled by Arabs for orchestrating the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which led to the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israeli-backed militias. He faces a late March deadline to form a coalition and pass the state budget.
If he cannot do either, he will face a new poll for prime minister and parliament. If he cannot forge a deal with Labour, he will have to lean on religious and nationalist parties likely to demand a harder attitude towards Palestinians.
Lower-level talks between Likud and Labour began on Thursday, just hours after a car bomb exploded in a religious Jewish area of Jerusalem, slightly injuring one woman.
A Palestinian unit calling itself the Sabra and Shatila Martyrs Group, after a 1982 massacre in Beirut for which Sharon was found indirectly to blame, claimed responsibility.
It said the unit was part of the previously unknown Palestinian Popular Resistance Forces. Another previously unknown group, the Popular Army Front, also claimed the attack.
"What happened today is another tragic event which demands we all unite to act with determination against terror," Sharon said after the blast near Arab East Jerusalem.
Barak, now caretaker prime minister, announced after his defeat that he would step down as Labour chief and resign from parliament once Sharon had forged a coalition and taken office.
But he decided on Thursday to head his party's negotiations along with elder statesman Shimon Peres.
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