- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy warned yesterday that a win by Israeli hawk Ariel Sharon in February elections for prime minister would cast doubt upon Israel's desire for peace with the Arabs.
Mr. Sharon, the Likud leader and architect of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, is considered a runaway favorite to win the Feb. 6 poll, especially if peace negotiations begun this week in Taba, Egypt, are unsuccessful.
Mr. Fahmy told editors and reporters at a luncheon at The Washington Times, "If the Israelis elect Sharon, people will wonder, 'Do the Israelis want peace?'
"The perception of Sharon in the Arab world is much more negative than that of [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak."
The plunge into violence amid the collapse of the peace process since September has made Israelis turn from Mr. Barak to Mr. Sharon, who is offering far less to the Palestinians in any peace deal than Mr. Barak offers.
Israelis and Palestinians began yesterday what is to be a 10-day "marathon" peace negotiation aimed at reaching an accord before the Israeli election.
The talks at Taba, on the shore of the Red Sea, are the latest in a series of meetings that have failed to halt the violence that erupted Sept. 29, a day after Mr. Sharon visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.
Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Korei, also known as Abu Ala, said yesterday that one committee had been set up to deal with borders, Jerusalem and security, and another one to deal with the fate of Palestinian refugees.
"Serious discussions" took place in the committees yesterday, Mr. Korei said.
But Israeli negotiator Amnon Lipkin-Shahak said he doubted a comprehensive peace deal was possible before the election.
Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the negotiations were "very serious and detailed."
"If such an atmosphere continues until the end of the week, maybe we will then have a pleasant surprise. This does not mean we have agreed on any of the issues, but the talks are being held in an in-depth and serious way," Mr. Abed Rabbo told Reuters news agency.
Mr. Fahmy, speaking American-accented English learned as a junior high school student in New York, said of the chance for success at Taba: "I am not holding my breath.
"It's very difficult to get a deal by Feb. 6. If we have a deal, then Barak may be re-elected."
He refused to blame President Clinton for the collapse of the peace process last year, noting that "he made a good faith effort."
Negotiations to reach agreement failed at Camp David in July when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused to accept an Israeli offer of about 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza plus partial autonomy over the Temple Mount.
In return, he was asked to give up his demand that up to 4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants be allowed to move to Israel.
In a sign that the Bush administration was to take a more hands-off approach to the Middle East peace process, the State Department said it was not participating in the Taba talks, the first negotiations in a long time to take place without an American presence.
"We maintain our strong interest in the Middle East peace process, and the secretary has asked his ambassadors in the region to follow the situation closely. But we're not participants in these particular talks," spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Mr. Sharon was quoted yesterday in the New Yorker magazine as calling Mr. Arafat "a murderer and a liar he's an enemy."
He also said that if he becomes prime minister, Mr. Arafat will have to take what he offers him in a peace deal. "He can accept it, reject it I don't care," Mr. Sharon said.
The retired general and war hero is blamed by Palestinians for allowing Lebanese Christian militiamen to massacre hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut in 1982 when Israeli troops were in control. Mr. Sharon denies the charge.
Mr. Sharon said last week his peace plan would offer the Palestinians no more land than the 40 percent of the West Bank and Gaza they have already been given and would retain Israeli-controlled roads dividing Palestinian areas.
Mr. Sharon also told the New Yorker he did not accept Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, a city with shrines holy to both Muslims and Jews.
"Mohammed was never in Jerusalem. When the Muslims occupied Jerusalem, it was seven years after Mohammed's death," Mr. Sharon said. "They say he came here and went to heaven. Yeah seven years after he died."
Since the interview was conducted, Mr. Sharon has sent greetings to Mr. Arafat for the holy month of Ramadan. He said yesterday that he would negotiate with Mr. Arafat if he is elected.

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