PA officials wary of Israel's shifting gov't

Palestinian Authority officials who have been closely watching the latest political crisis in Israel on Tuesday expressed fear that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might exploit the situation to step up pressure on the Palestinians. Others, however, voiced c autious optimism, saying the new Israeli government would have no choice but to revive the stalled peace process. "The Palestinian leadership fears that the Israeli government will try to export its internal crisis to the Palestinian areas," said Palesti nian Legislative Council Speaker Rouhi Fattouh. "Israel might now escalate its aggression on the Palestinians by pursuing its policy of collective punishment, detentions, assassinations and settlement construction." Echoing fears among some senior PA leaders, Fattouh expressed concern that the current crisis in Israel would "lead to the freezing of the peace process and the implementation of the road map." PA spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh said that although the PA does not interfere in Israel's internal affairs, it is keen to see a prime minister in Israel who wants to achieve peace. "We will wait to see the political program of the new government," he said. "Only then will we see if they want peace or not." Chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians hoped to have a partner in Israel that desires to end the conflict. He described what is going on in Israel as "an eruption of a political volcano of such significance that I've never seen before." PA Information Minister Nabil Shaath was also optimistic about the future of the peace process, saying there was an opportunity for reviving negotiations with Israel. "I think that there is slight optimism with regards to what is going on in Israel," he said. "I think that there is an opportunity for the peace process. The Palestinian leadership is following carefully what is going on in Israel." The PA on Monday called on the international community to hold an international peace conference to promote negotiations on the final status issues. The P A cabinet said in a statement that the peace conference should have a clear agenda and a specific schedule for immediately starting negotiations on the final status issues. It urged the international community to assume its role and to immediately interv ene in the conflict, saying that the only way to reach to peace is through negotiations, and not unilateral measures. Meanwhile, the PA is planning a large ceremony to mark the opening of the Rafah border crossing later this week. About 1,200 figures fro m different countries have been invited to the ceremony, according to Salim Abu Safiyeh, who is in charge of the Palestinian border crossings. He said PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas would deliver a speech at the event. PA Civil Affairs Minister Muhammad Dahla n was expected to hold talks in Cairo on Wednesday with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to discuss final arrangements of the opening of the Rafah