A meeting in Vienna that took place late Wednesday or early Thursday morning between aides to Ariel Sharon, the right-wing Israeli prime ministerial candidate, and an advisor to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, may have involved more than just a discussion about the future of the peace process after Sharon’s anticipated election victory on February 6. Based on information that leaked out the hours after the meeting, it appears that one of the subjects discussed was the reopening of the Oasis Casino in the Palestinian town of Jericho.
Initially, Sharon’s election headquarters reported that his aides would be meeting in a European city with an influential personality from the Middle East. It later transpired that the city was Vienna and that the “personality” was Mohammed Rashid (Khaled Salam), Arafat’s senior economic advisor and arguably the most powerful figure in the Palestinian economy.
It is possible that the choice of the location for the meeting was not coincidental. The Oasis Casino is managed by the Vienna-based Casinos Austria International.
According to sources in the Sharon camp, the Palestinians had requested that Sharon himself attend the meeting, but he had declined saying that he was not able to break away from the campaign. Instead he sent his son Omri; Eitan Bentzur, the former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry; and Dov Weisglass, one of Israel’s leading lawyers.
It was the presence at the meeting of Weisglass and Rashid that raised questions as to what was the true nature of the encounter. Weisglass, who generally is not known as a supporter of rightwing causes, is retained in Israel to represent the interests of shareholders in the Jericho casino, which has been closed since soon after the start of violence in the Palestinian territories. Rashid, who usually limits his involvement to economic affairs and not the political process, is reportedly the Palestinian Authority’s representative on the casino’s board of directors.
In recent days there have been a number of reports on efforts to reopen the casino. The facility, which is operated by an Austrian company, is mainly frequented by Israeli gamblers. Even though it is located in a Palestinian controlled city, the Palestinian authorities do not allow Palestinians to gamble in the casino.
Speaking to Israeli radio just prior to boarding a flight back to Israel, Bentzur refused to confirm whether the meeting had taken place in Vienna, or whether Rashid had been present. He said that only the political process was discussed, and the issue of the casino in Jericho was never raised. He did not explain Weisglass’ presence at the meeting, but stated that he had no knowledge of whom the lawyer represented. — (Albawaba-MEBG)
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