Sharon cancels Mideast meet
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered his foreign minister not to meet "yet" with the Palestinian leadership, CNN has learned.
Sources close to Sharon told CNN that the prime minister said a meeting could only take place if there was 48 hours of consecutive calm in the West Bank and Gaza.
Sharon reportedly told his Cabinet ministers that it was "inconceivable" that a meeting could take place while mortar bombs were being fired by Palestinians -- in effect canceling a meeting planned for Sunday.
CNN sources said Sharon told the Cabinet Sunday that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had been instructed against a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Palestinian officials earlier had said that an Arafat-Peres meeting would take place Sunday afternoon at the Palestinian international airport in southern Gaza.
Palestinian sources said there had even been confirmation that "Mr. Peres would be coming" Sunday morning as the Israeli Cabinet convened.
Sharon has been facing growing opposition from right-wing ministers to the anticipated Peres-Arafat meeting.
Ministers had charged that in addition to violating Israel's principle not to negotiate under fire, such a meeting would "grant Arafat international legitimacy" at a time when, they argued, he still needed to prove he was in the anti-terror camp.
In a CNN interview on Friday Sharon said: "Arafat had always been and remained a terrorist."
Though a senior official said on Sunday that Arafat has not "passed the bin Laden test," or has still not proved that he is not a terrorist, Sharon made plain that he was not ruling out permanently the possibility of a Peres-Arafat meeting taking place.
That would depend on real calm being restored for a full 48 hours in the West Bank and Gaza, the sources close to Sharon said.
In light of the row within the Israeli government, there is speculation whether Peres might force a coalition crisis within Israel.
He did not attend the Cabinet meeting on Sunday morning. On the other hand, right-wing parties had threatened to quit the coalition should the Peres- Arafat meeting go ahead.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said: "We have not been officially notified that the meeting is off. The Israel government knows where to find us."
Erakat, who had participated in a preparatory meeting with Peres on Saturday, was already on his way from the West Bank to Gaza when news of Sharon's position came through.
He told CNN that "if the meeting is indeed canceled, it's a very bad sign for what's to come."
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