JERUSALEM, AP – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hopes to clinch a final peace deal with the Palestinians if re-elected, a political ally said Tuesday, in the clearest sign yet of Sharon”s agenda for a possible third term.
Sharon”s new party, Kadima, "will strive in this term to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians and to set Israel”s permanent boundaries," Cabinet Minister Meir Sheetrit said.
"We understand that to reach a final status agreement, there is no choice … but to create two states for two nations," Sheetrit told Israel Radio.
Last week, Sharon quit the Likud Party he helped to found because he was convinced that dissidents opposed to the summer”s Gaza withdrawal would try to stifle further concessions to the Palestinians and the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. Days later, parliament”s term was cut short and early elections were called for March 28.
Sharon”s Kadima party, dominated by former Likud lawmakers, held its first formal meeting on Monday. But while it sketched out broad policy goals, including peaceful coexistence with a future Palestinian state, it did not go so far as to declare the creation of that state as a goal for the coming term.
Sheetrit became more specific in his comments Tuesday.
"I think in this term, the prime minister, having taken the bold step of leaving Gaza …is ripe to reach a final status agreement," he said.
Recent polls show Sharon headed toward a third term and able to put together a moderate coalition government with the Labor Party, which also supports a final peace deal.
Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib played down the significance of Sheetrit”s remarks, saying Sharon and the Palestinians had a different peace deal in mind.
"He is pursuing a unilateral approach, which is not constructive, and he wants peace that is incompatible with our legitimate rights and with international legality," Khatib said.
In practice, Sharon is building settlements and consolidating Israel”s occupation of the West Bank, "moving in the opposite direction" of a final peace deal, he said.
"I think these statements are public relations and election-related kind of statements," he added.
While Israel”s election campaign heats up, on the Palestinian side, primaries for the ruling Fatah party were in disarray less than two months before Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.
On Tuesday, Fatah officials wrangled over whether to press ahead with voting in primaries, after gunmen disrupted elections in Gaza and activists complained of irregularities.
Fatah organizers said primaries would be held, as scheduled, in Jerusalem on Tuesday and in the West Bank city of Hebron on Friday.
On Monday, Gaza primaries were canceled after gunmen attacked polling stations, embarrassing Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has been unable to restore order in the coastal strip — or in his own party — ahead of a stiff electoral challenge from the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The primaries in Gaza, and those to have been held on Tuesday, were expected to solidify wins by younger members of the Fatah movement who swept aside Fatah old-timers in primaries in five West Bank districts last week.
A changing of the guard is considered crucial to removing the taint of corruption from Fatah before the Jan. 25 vote. In local elections earlier this year, Hamas won over many Palestinian voters opposed to its violent ideology by playing up its image of honesty.