- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2001

JERUSALEM Only once in his life has Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon been alone in a room with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

It happened in 1998, at Israeli-Arab peace talks in Wye River outside Washington.

Mr. Sharon, foreign minister at the time, had joined the talks to according to his own account "limit the damage" after Israel committed itself to handing back more West Bank land.

At a certain moment during the summit, Mr. Sharon discovered he was alone with the Palestinian leader. The two men spent 30 minutes in the room without exchanging a word or even a glance, according to Palestinian officials.

Two years later, it's a different story. Since his overwhelming election victory last week, Mr. Sharon has traded letters with Mr. Arafat, spoken to him by phone and agreed to meet the man he still refers to as Israel's worst enemy.

The exchanges are only formalities. Real prospects for peace will depend more on the level of Palestinian violence, which has surged since the election, and on Mr. Sharon's willingness to pick up where his predecessor, Ehud Barak, left off in talks with the Palestinians.

But the early dialogue says to some analysts that Mr. Sharon will not be the mulish hard-liner that many people expected. Mr. Arafat, along with other Arab leaders, appears curious to see what he will do.

"We have to wait and see," Mr. Arafat told the Reuters news agency in an interview yesterday. "We will judge him according to policies he takes as prime minister and with whom he will form a government."

Much will depend on Mr. Sharon's coalition partners. The 72-year-old former general met Mr. Barak yesterday for the second time over the weekend, trying to woo his election rival into a broad-based "unity government."

According to reports here, Mr. Sharon has suggested that Mr. Barak serve as defense minister in the new government and has offered the Foreign Ministry traditionally the office that oversees negotiations with the Palestinians to Labor veteran Shimon Peres, a peacemaking stalwart.

Sharon aide Eyal Arad said the two sides had put in writing some points of agreement and could come to terms on a unity government fairly quickly.

But other officials were less confident. A member of Mr. Barak's Labor party team said linking up with Mr. Sharon depended on his willingness to agree to evacuating at least some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza under a deal with the Palestinians.

"We know that those who aren't willing to dismantle any settlements on the way to peace won't bring peace," said Ofir Pines of Labor.

For Mr. Sharon, one of Israel's early and fervent architects of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, even to consider a platform that would label some of the communities expendable would require a major political reversal.

It was enough for other Arab leaders, like Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, to strike a wait-and-see attitude.

Mr. Moussa said the Arabs would give Mr. Sharon until an Arab summit in late March to signal that he was ready to resume peace talks with the Palestinians from the point they left off with Mr. Barak agreeing to hand over about 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza for a Palestinian state.

But Mr. Barak himself has said the talks did not bind Israel because no agreement was reached. Palestinians turned down his offers as not generous enough.

Mr. Sharon's alternative to a unity government is a narrow coalition of religious and right-wing parties that would give him a paper-thin majority in parliament. With some of the far right-wing parties opposing any negotiations with the Palestinians, it also would seal the fate of Israeli-Arab peacemaking.

If he manages to form a government with Labor, Mr. Sharon's first priority will be getting Mr. Arafat to call an end to 4 and 1/2 months of violence in the West Bank and Gaza.

Judging by events of the past six days, extracting a cease-fire will not be easy. Palestinians have ratcheted up the fighting with Israel, shooting at settlements and clashing with soldiers after a relative lull in the days leading up to last week's election.

An Israeli civilian was killed yesterday in the West Bank when his car was ambushed by Palestinians. Rescue workers who came to evacuate the man also came under fire.

"This definitely marks a surge in violence, and it's aimed at Mr. Sharon," said one military official, speaking on national radio. "There's a feeling out here that Palestinians want to test him."

The importance of halting the violence was Mr. Sharon's main message in his conversation with Mr. Arafat on Friday.

"Israel and the Palestinians have acted greatly to build peace. But in order to reach peace we need security. Security is the most important factor for both peoples and for all of the peoples of the region," Mr. Sharon told Mr. Arafat, according to excerpts of the conversation published yesterday in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

The 71-year-old Palestinian leader had called Mr. Sharon to congratulate him on his victory. Much of the exchange reads like a dialogue of the deaf with each leader hammering his own points and ignoring those of his interlocutor.

But at least they were talking.

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