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Sharon, Abbas to Have First Summit in Egypt - Aides (REUTERS) By Mark Heinrich JERUSALEM, ISRAEL Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah, Dan Williams in Jerusalem 02/02/05 08:35 AM ET)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7512692 Reuters News Service Reuters News Service Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt next week, the highest- level summit between the sides in four years of armed conflict, officials said on Wednesday.

The talks would aim to build on a fragile, de facto cease-fire engineered by Abbas after his Jan. 9 election by launching a peace process based on a U.S.-backed "road map" to a Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Aides to Sharon and Abbas said they had accepted an invitation from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to a meeting on Feb. 8 in the Sinai Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh.

Palestinian officials said King Abdullah of Jordan was also expected. Egypt and Jordan signed peace deals with Israel in 1979 and 1994, the only Arab states to do so, and have played intermediary roles during the conflict.

"A four-way summit will be held ... to try to advance the peace process," an official close to Abbas told Reuters. An Egyptian official said it was too early to comment.

Abbas´s rise to succeed Yasser Arafat, whom Israel and the United States shunned after branding him an obstacle to peace, has rekindled U.S. engagement in Middle East diplomacy.

New Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to meet Sharon and Abbas separately during a trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah the day before the summit.

But a stable, lasting peace may still be far off. Israel plans to quit tiny Gaza this summer but vows to hold onto larger settlements in the West Bank forever. The two sides also remain poles apart on the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Palestinians want all of the West Bank and Gaza and Arab East Jerusalem for their capital. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Middle East war.

Sharon and Abbas last met in Jordan in June 2003, during Abbas´s brief tenure as Arafat´s prime minister, along with President Bush, to launch the road map, which was then swiftly sidelined by violence.

FRAGILE CALM ON THE GROUND

A summit has been mooted since Abbas cajoled militants to suspend a four-year-old revolt to help him launch road map talks. Israel responded by curtailing military actions.

Sharon´s office said the invitation to the summit was delivered by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman during a visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Abbas has also accepted an invitation to pay an official visit to Iran, Palestinian officials said.

Iran has backed Palestinian militants, but has said in the past it would not be against a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict if that is what Palestinians wanted.

Earlier, Israel said it might suspend its hunt for militants to help Abbas, who believes he could restrain gunmen better if Israeli forces ended raids to kill or capture them.

Abbas has also demanded the release of thousands of Palestinian security prisoners jailed in Israel.

Officials said Sharon would convene his inner cabinet on Thursday to discuss halting the pursuit of wanted men before the summit with Abbas.

"We are talking not about granting clemency, but a freeze. A freeze means that everything is temporary," senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told Israel´s Army Radio.

"That is, if they resume terror, and the murders and attacks continue, then we will resume vigorous action. Ultimately you need a reliable partner, otherwise there will be no solution."

Israeli media said the Shin Bet security service had balked at including militants wanted for deadly attacks in the freeze, which would be finalized in security talks with Palestinians.

Israel had earlier refused to back off its demand, laid out in the "road map," for a Palestinian crackdown on militants. But to avoid civil strife, Abbas aims to co-opt rather than try to disarm and jail militants. (Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah, Dan Williams in Jerusalem) (© Reuters 2005 02/02/05)


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