Israel's Likud leader and prime minister candidate, Ariel Sharon, denied on Friday that a meeting between his three aides and senior Palestinian official, Mohammed Rashid, this week in Vienna was devoted to straightening out the Intifada-related woes of the Jericho casino, which is under joint Palestinian-Austrian ownership, according to Haaretz newspaper.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other Sharon detractors raised questions about the propriety of holding the meeting while the situation remains tense in the territories, said the paper, adding that the officials questioned also the role played by Sharon's son Omri.
The Israeli channel one's news program disclosed Wednesday that the meeting involved Mohammed Rashid (also known as Khaled Salim), a key economic adviser to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and three Sharon confidantes; his son, Omri, former foreign ministry director-general, Eytan Bentsur, and attorney Dov Weisglass, who represents one of the owners of the Jericho casino.
Haaretz quoted a Palestinian press report as saying that Omri Sharon phoned Rashid to request the meeting.
The Palestinian official, added Haaretz, responded that he was en route to Vienna and so the discussion took place there.
Speculation and recrimination raised by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other officials about the Vienna meeting centered on three questions:
1) If, as Bentsur and Weisglass insisted, the discussion centered on peace process issues, why wasn't it deferred until after the funerals of the two Israelis who were killed in TulKarm Tuesday?
2) What influence is Omri Sharon exerting on his father's campaign?
3) If, as Palestinians claim, the discussion dealt with casino financing, why is the Sharon campaign mixing private enterprise concerns with war and peace issues, and engaging seasoned diplomats like Bentsur to talk about business?
In addition, aides close to Barak claimed, according to Haaretz, that Sharon's party asked the Palestinians not to sign an agreement before the elections.
Sharon's campaign, however, denied the allegation.
Rejecting Sharon's denial, one top PA official told Haaretz that the meeting was devoted mainly to the financing of the Jericho casino.
While Bentsur denied that the Vienna talk addressed a range of economic issues, information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said that Rashid and the Likud delegation discussed financial matters, trade and also the elections.
Meanwhile, Palestinian sources said Friday they were told that Sharon's advisor on Arab affairs was secretly visiting the Arabian Gulf, Israeli reports said.
The sources told Israel Radio that they knew of the Vienna meeting after they requested to know why Magali Wahaba, was not present.
Palestinians have voiced their worries regarding the probable electoral victory of Sharon.
Minister of international cooperation and planning, Nabil Shaath, was quoted by AFP as saying it would be "bad news" if Sharon became prime minister.
Sharon is blamed by the Palestinians for triggering the current violence with a controversial visit to a hotly contested holy site in Jerusalem that is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The hawkish Sharon has said that if he becomes prime minister, he would not be bound by any deal signed by Barak, although he has opened a channel of communication with the Palestinians -- Albawaba.com
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