Abbas, Sharon Trade Barbs

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) complained in remarks published Wednesday that the Israeli government is inciting against him and that it has violated agreements reached at a summit in February.

It was Abbas' harshest public criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) since the Palestinian leader took office three months ago. Sharon has accused Abbas of not doing enough to rein in Palestinian militants, and voiced his criticism of Abbas in a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush (search) earlier this month.

Also Wednesday, Sharon was quoted as saying that he expects Palestinians to loot Jewish settlements immediately after Israeli forces leave the Gaza Strip (search) this summer. U.S. 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.

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

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (search) was to meet later Wednesday with a top Sharon aide, Dov Weisglass. It was not clear whether they would discuss possible coordination of the Gaza pullback — 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 Tulkarem.

In an interview with the Haaretz daily, Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, complained that Israel has not kept its promises.

He also said Israel is undercutting him with constant criticism. "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 by releasing prisoners.

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

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

A stormy meeting of senior ministers on Tuesday ended with no decision. Both Sharon and his defense 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 9,000 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 Aug. 14.

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 energize opponents to redouble efforts to scuttle the plan.

According to a statement from his office, Sharon backed the original late July starting date during the Tuesday ministerial meeting. "I really want to help them (the settlers) in any way possible, but delaying the implementation of the plan can create many complications," he said.

But just a day earlier, he told reporters he was "positively inclined" to agree to the three-week delay. An aide said he would decide by the weekend.

Security officials said that during the meeting, Mofaz was cool to the postponement. Later, during a stormy visit to the Gaza settlements, Mofaz was sympathetic. "Residents have made the request, and it could make things easier," he told Army Radio. "I believe that anything that can make it easier should be done."

Some Cabinet ministers suggested the delay would be needed to give the government more time to iron out the hang-ups in withdrawal preparations.

After fighting the plan for months, settlers have only recently started negotiating with the government over compensation, and committees have only been set up in the past few days to decide on the many complex issues involved in the evacuation, such as finding housing for uprooted settlers.