Jerusalem, Feb. 9 (Reuters): Prime Minister Ariel Sharon officially accepted today the task of forming Israel’s next government after a sweeping election victory fuelled by support for his tough response to a Palestinian uprising for statehood.
Sharon said the new government would have to remove what he called the Palestinian “terrorist leadership”, but stopped short of threatening to expel Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
The comments came as news emerged of secret truce talks between Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, and Ahmed Korei, a top Palestinian official close to Arafat.
The two met on Wednesday for the first high-level talks in nearly a year. A source in Sharon’s office said Washington, which has appealed for calm in Israeli-Palestinian violence as it prepares for possible war on Iraq, encouraged the meeting.
“The plan has been to encourage the Palestinians to act energetically and with determination to stop terror,” Dov Weisglass, head of Sharon’s office, told Israel Radio, outlining the Prime Minister’s proposal to Korei.
“It proposes that everywhere they succeed in preventing attacks or showing that they are making serious efforts to do so, Israel will react accordingly by changing its military deployment in the area and easing restrictions on trade and movement,” he added.
Such deals have collapsed in the past, and Israeli forces reoccupied most of the West Bank in the middle of last year following suicide attacks in Israel. The Palestinian Authority has said the incursions have paralysed its security forces.
“Out of a sense of deep responsibility, I accept the task of setting up a new government in Israel,” Sharon said in a broadcast ceremony after President Moshe Katzav asked him to put together a ruling coalition in the next 42 days.
“The new government will have to complete the campaign against terror, remove the terrorist leadership and create the conditions for the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership with which it will be possible to make real peace,” he said.
Sharon has accused Arafat of funding and leading a “coalition of terror” in the Palestinian uprising for statehood, but Arafat has denied fomenting anti-Israeli violence.
“This reflects the true intention of the current Israeli leadership of continuing the path of destruction and escalation,” Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said in response to Sharon’s comments.
Before the Israeli presidential ceremony, three Palestinians blew up their explosives-laden car next to a Gaza Strip army post, killing themselves and wounding four soldiers.
Political commentators predicted that Sharon, a 74-year-old former general, would not rush into a coalition, but would await conflict in the Gulf that could draw Iraqi missile attacks on Israel and bolster his call for a broad government.
Likud won one-third of Parliament’s 120 seats in last month’s poll and could form a narrow coalition with a combination of right-wing, religious and secular parties.
But Sharon has his sights on a so-called unity government that would include his main rival, the centre-left Labour Party that quit his coalition three months ago in a dispute over funding for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“No one can escape the obligation to give up on immediate political petty interests in favour of national interest,” Sharon said in remarks directed at Labour.