In remarks published on Wednesday, Abbas made his harshest public criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon since the Palestinian leader took office three months ago.

 

Sharon has accused Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, of not doing enough to rein in Palestinian fighters, and voiced his criticism of Abbas in a meeting with US President George Bush earlier this month.

 

On Wednesday, Sharon was quoted as saying he expected Palestinians to loot Jewish settlements immediately after Israeli forces leave the Gaza Strip this summer.

 

US officials have urged Israel and the Palestinians to coordinate the withdrawal, in part to ensure an orderly transfer of the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza.

 

Looting caution

 

"Immediately after the Israeli army leaves there, everything will be looted," Sharon told senior cabinet ministers on Tuesday, according to the Yediot Ahronoth daily.

 

"Immediately after the Israeli army leaves there, everything will be looted"

Ariel Sharon,
Israeli Prime Minister

The comments were confirmed by a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity.

 

Sharon's prediction would suggest that he considers planning to be futile, and that chaos would ensue once Israeli troops pull out. Palestinian officials were not immediately available for comment.

 

Negotiations

 

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saib Uraiqat was to meet later on Wednesday with top Sharon aide Dov Weisglass.

 

It was not clear whether they would discuss possible coordination of the Gaza pullout - initially conceived by Israel as a unilateral plan - or deal with unfinished business, such as the handover of three more West Bank towns to Palestinian control.

 

Sharon had promised Abbas at a February summit to pull out of five towns over several weeks, but the military has only left two so far - Jericho and Tulkarim.

 

In an interview with the Haaretz daily, Abbas complained that Israel had not kept its promises.

 

Constant criticism

 

The Palestinian Authority president also said Israel was undercutting him with constant criticism.

 

"I am not the complaining type, but ... officials have not stopped inciting for a moment"

Mahmud Abbas,
Palestinian Authority President

"Day and night, they are inciting against me in the Israeli media," Abbas told Haaretz.

 

"I am not the complaining type, but despite the instructions we have issued to halt incitement on our side, Israeli officials have not stopped inciting for a moment."

 

When Abbas stepped down as prime minister in 2003, after only four months in office, he blamed Sharon in part for the failure of his government, saying Israel systematically undermined him.

 

Israeli officials have since acknowledged they could have done more to boost Abbas' standing in 2003, including prisoners release.

 

Abbas said he was willing to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with Israel, and that he expected meetings to start next week.

 

Withdrawal delay

 

Israel's government, meanwhile, is to decide by the weekend whether to put off the withdrawal by three weeks, accommodating a religious holiday period, but signalling uncertainty and weakness in the face of settler opposition.

 

Israel may delay settlement
withdrawal by three weeks

A stormy meeting of senior ministers on Tuesday ended with no decision. Both Sharon and his defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, came down on both sides of the issue.

 

The confusion reflected growing complaints that the government is not ready to carry out the evacuation of 9000 settlers - it has yet to figure out where they will go.

 

The scheduling issue is that the evacuation of the 21 Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank would coincide with the annual period of mourning observant Jews mark for the destruction of the biblical temples, leading up to the fast day of Tisha B'Av on 14 August.

 

On the one hand, Sharon does not want the Gaza pullout to be added to the list of Jewish catastrophes associated with Tisha B'Av.

 

On the other hand, he is aware that a delay could be seen as weakness and could energise opponents to redouble efforts to scuttle the plan.