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Israel, Palestinians Prepare for Summit (AP) By JOSEF FEDERMAN JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 01/29/05 2:20 PM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A47058-2005Jan29.html AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM - Palestinian and Israeli officials on Saturday expressed widely different expectations for an upcoming summit between their leaders, reflecting the sharp differences that remain as the two sides try to end four years of hostilities and resume peace talks.

In a step toward bridging the differences, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Mohammed Dahlan, a top Palestinian security official, met late Saturday to prepare for the summit. The meeting was expected to focus on security-related matters.

The summit, expected in the second week of February, reflects the warming ties between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. It would be the highest-level contacts between Israel and the Palestinians since mid-2003. However, crucial differences have begun to emerge.

Palestinian officials said Saturday that they expect a wide-ranging agenda that will include the declaration of a formal truce, a large- scale release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and the resumption of peace negotiations. Israel wants the meeting to focus on security matters.

Abbas has been trying to co-opt Palestinian militants into the political system, and has already coaxed them into temporarily halting attacks on Israeli targets.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Saturday that Abbas is "very close to a national agreement" with the militant factions, but said a formal halt to violence would depend on Israel.

He said Israel must formally accept a cease-fire, withdraw troops from West Bank cities and release some of the 7,000 prisoners it is holding to move forward with the accord.

"There is a temporary cease-fire and we are waiting for an Israeli response," Shaath told The Associated Press by phone before leaving Damascus for Jordan. "If Israel reciprocated, the cease-fire will turn from a temporary into a permanent one."

Earlier Shaath had been in Egypt, which has been playing a key role in the cease-fire talks. Shaath said Egypt has invited representatives of militant groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to Cairo next week to continue the efforts.

During Abbas´ brief tenure, Israel and the Palestinians have made significant progress on security matters. Abbas has deployed thousands of Palestinian police throughout the Gaza Strip to prevent attacks on Jewish settlements and towns inside Israel. The deployment has resulted in a sharp drop in violence.

In return, the Israeli military has halted its raids in Gaza and greatly scaled back its activities in the West Bank.

Saturday night´s meeting between Dahlan and Mofaz was expected to focus on an Israeli military pullback from five West Bank cities and other ways to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement, such as the removal of Israeli checkpoints, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

Amos Gilad, a senior adviser to Mofaz, said Israel is ready to 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. "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."

Sharon has said he is pleased with Abbas´ efforts so far, and begun to talk about coordinating Israel´s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this year with Abbas. Previously, he planned the pullout as a unilateral act.

But with the summit approaching, Israel appears reluctant to move security concerns and into political matters.

Hassan Abu Libdeh, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary, said he expects the summit to take place within two weeks. A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the meeting would take place on Feb. 8. Israeli officials said nothing has yet been confirmed.

The summit would be the first gathering of Israeli and Palestinian leaders since Sharon and Abbas launched the "road map" peace plan in June 2003. Abbas was the Palestinian prime minister at the time. As the newly elected Palestinian leader, Abbas is eager to restart road map talks.

Israeli officials said the agenda for the summit will be finalized in a series of meetings in the coming days, but said it is premature to begin thinking about the road map.

While welcoming the recent calm, one senior official dismissed calls for a mutual cease-fire, saying that changes on the ground are more important than verbal promises.

"The road to the road map ends with a halt in violence, terrorism and incitement" said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There is no way some sort of tenous cease-fire without dismantling terrorist organizations will enable us to move forward toward difficult political negotiations."

Although the road map calls for the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups, Abbas has so far rejected calls to confront the militants, preferring to persuade them into halting their activities.

The Palestinians believe this is sufficient for resuming peace negotiations, pointing out that Israel has failed to honor its road map obligations to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank.

Adding to the growing diplomatic momentum in the region, Palestinian officials said Saturday that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit the Palestinian territories on Feb. 6 or 7. During her confirmation hearings in Washington, Rice promised to become personally involved in efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Also Saturday, Palestinian militants fired a mortar shell at a Jewish settlement in the central Gaza Strip on Saturday, Israeli officials said, a day after Palestinian police were sent to the area to stop such attacks.

The shell landed in an open area of the Netzer Hazani settlement, Israeli military officials said. There were no injuries. (jmf/pe) (Copyright 2005 Associated Press. 01/29/05)

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