Israeli, Palestinian leaders meet at summit

Sunday, May 18, 2003

The Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers failed Saturday to narrow sharp differences over a U.S.-backed peace plan in a three-hour summit -- the first since fighting erupted nearly three years ago -- that was overshadowed by violence.

In Palestinian attacks in the West Bank, a suicide bomber killed an Israeli man and his pregnant wife in the city of Hebron. Two gunmen later tried to enter the Jewish settlement of Shaarei Tikvah but were killed at the perimeter fence.

At the start of the meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expressed his "rage" about the Hebron attack, a Sharon statement said. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas "agreed that stopping terrorism is the first step toward any progress," the statement said, adding that the two leaders would hold more talks after Sharon returns from a U.S. trip next week.

Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia, who attended the meeting, said the Palestinian delegation asked Sharon to accept the "road map," a three-stage prescription for ending violence quickly and setting up a Palestinian state by 2005.

Requests and refusals

Sharon declined, and said he wants to discuss his reservations with President Bush in a White House meeting on Tuesday.

Qureia said Sharon also proposed withdrawing troops from some areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israeli media have reported that Sharon would offer to pull out soldiers from parts of the northern Gaza Strip as a test for Palestinian security forces who would then be expected to prevent rocket fire on Israel.

The summit could be a bellwether for future U.S. mediation efforts. If top-level Israeli-Palestinian talks can't produce results, Washington might have to press the sides harder or even consider imposing solutions. Bush has not spelled out how far he is willing to go in ensuring progress on the "road map."

Abbas asked Sharon to lift travel bans on Palestinians, particularly on leader Yasser Arafat, and to stop hunting suspected militants in order to allow the Palestinians to launch their own campaign against militias, Qureia said.

Israel says it will not budge until Abbas has taken real steps against the armed groups, including arrests and weapons sweeps.

Bombings, military clashes

In violence Saturday, a Palestinian disguised as an observant Jew blew himself up in a downtown square in Hebron, near Jewish settler enclaves. The bomber killed an Israeli man and his pregnant wife.

The assailant was later identified by relatives as Fuad Qawasmeh, 21, a supporter of the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Palestinian militias have threatened to sabotage the road map, saying they would not halt attacks and would resist forcefully if Abbas tried to disarm them.

As the meeting between Abbas and Sharon was ending, two Palestinian gunmen tried to enter the Jewish settlement of Shaarei Tikvah in the West Bank, but were killed by security forces near the perimeter fence. Paramedics initially said an Israeli was seriously wounded in the shooting, but later withdrew that report.

In the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian gunman in clashes. Nine Palestinians were wounded, including a gunman and five teenagers, doctors said. The military said two of the teens threw a firebomb at a military vehicle.

The Abbas-Sharon meeting is the first Israeli-Palestinian summit since September 2000 when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with Arafat. Several days after that meeting, Sharon, then the opposition leader, made a demonstrative visit to a disputed Jerusalem holy site, triggering large-scale Palestinian protests that quickly escalated into the current fighting. In October 2000, Barak and Arafat attended Egyptian-sponsored cease-fire talks, but were part of a larger group of leaders.

Many Palestinian officials said they believe Saturday's summit largely serves Israeli interests. Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said Sharon is "using this meeting as a political ploy to mislead, or to give the impression that he can carry out negotiations and that he does have a Palestinian partner."

Earlier Saturday, Abbas accepted the resignation of Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator who stepped down after being excluded from the summit. Erekat's accessibility and fluent English had made him a sought-after guest on TV news shows and a prominent spokesman for the Palestinian cause.

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