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Sharon, Abbas to Hold Summit in February (AP) By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH RAMALLAH 01/29/05 10:24 AM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A46778-2005Jan29.html AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will hold their first summit early next month, a senior Palestinian official said Saturday, in what would be the highest-level contacts between the two sides in more than 18 months.

Also, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said the Abbas government was "very close" to reaching an agreement with militant groups on a cease-fire with Israel.

Shaath said representatives of the groups - including Hamas and Islamic Jihad - will travel to Cairo in the first week of February for talks with Egyptian security officials. Those meetings are aimed at securing an end to hostilities against Israel within the framework of a Palestinian national accord.

"I think we are very close to a national agreement," he said.

However, Israel must formally accept the cease-fire, withdraw its troops from West Bank cities and release Palestinian prisoners for the Palestinian groups to move forward with the accord, he said.

"All of these measures will help to cement the cease-fire," he said.

Speaking at the airport in Amman, Abbas said talks with the militants "have come a long way," but more discussions were necessary.

Adding to the growing diplomatic momentum in the region, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit the region Feb. 6 or 7, a senior Palestinian official said.

Rice promised during her Senate confirmation hearings that she would become personally involved in efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Mohammed Dahlan, a top Palestinian security official, were to meet later Saturday to prepare for the Sharon-Abbas summit, officials said. The talks are expected to focus on an Israeli military pullback from five West Bank cities.

The summit would cap a series of recent steps by Israel and the Palestinians to end more than four years of fighting and resume peace talks. It would be the first gathering of Israeli and Palestinian leaders since Sharon and Abbas signed the so-called "road map" peace plan in June 2003. Abbas was the Palestinian prime minister at the time.

Differences over the agenda remain, however, raising questions about what will come out of any new gathering.

Hassan Abu Libdeh, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary, said he expected the summit to take place within two weeks.

One Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity the meeting would take place Feb. 8. Israeli officials said nothing was confirmed.

Palestinian officials said Abbas was seeking a wide-ranging agenda for the summit, including a formal cease-fire, a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners and the resumption of talks on the peace plan.

Israeli officials said they would consider all Palestinian requests but want the summit to focus on security issues, particularly a halt in violence and incitement. Israeli leaders have so far balked at a formal declaration of a cease-fire.

The U.S.-backed plan, which aims to establish an independent Palestinian state, quickly fell into disarray amid continued fighting and violations by both sides.

Libdeh expressed hope that Rice´s visit would provide a new push for the peace plan.

"We highly appreciate this American interest in what is going on in the Palestinian territories," Libdeh said. "We hope that this will be a beginning of a big American involvement between the parties to implement the ´road map.´"

The two sides already have shown signs of progress.

Since his election earlier this month, Abbas has coaxed Palestinian militants into suspending attacks on Israeli targets and deployed thousands of Palestinian police throughout the Gaza Strip to help ensure calm.

In response, the Israeli military halted offensive operations in Gaza and said the army would scale back operations in the West Bank as well. But the Palestinians want Israel to go further.

Dahlan, a senior security adviser to Abbas, said his meeting with Mofaz on Saturday would focus on Israeli military withdrawals from five cities in the West Bank, the release of Palestinian prisoners and the safety of 400 Palestinian militants wanted by Israeli authorities.

Amos Gilad, a senior adviser to Mofaz, said Israel was ready to work with the Palestinians and would consider widespread concessions.

"There will be a new attitude of flexibility with real intention to give a chance to the new Palestinian government, which has declared that its interest is to fight terror," Gilad told Israel Radio on Saturday.

"At this stage the defense establishment, including the Israeli army, and all the rest are willing to do everything, really everything, to allow this seedling to blossom."

Abbas met Saturday in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key Arab mediator throughout the turbulent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egypt has been leading Arab-world efforts to get all Palestinian militant factions to agree to a cease-fire.

Senior Egyptian officials are expected to travel to the Palestinian territories next week to discuss the cease-fire and deploying 750 Egyptian troops along the Gaza border. Shaath also said the Palestinians would be sending 40 police officers to Egypt next week for security training. The moves are in preparation for Israel´s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.

Sharon initially proposed the Gaza withdrawal as a unilateral move but recently has expressed willingness to coordinate the pullout with Abbas. (Copyright 2005 Associated Press. 01/29/05)

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