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Palestinian and Israeli leaders prepare for summit
JERUSALEM -- Looking ahead for the first time after months of impasse, the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers on Thursday prepared for a summit, possibly within days.
Despite conciliatory statements, however,expectations are low that the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan can be revived. Neither side appears closer to making concessions -- a crackdown on militant groups by the Palestinians, a removal of dozens of settlement outposts by Israel.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia convened his Cabinet for the first time Thursday, a day after it was sworn in following two months of political wrangling.
With a government finally in place, Qureia can focus on his priorities. He first wants to persuade militant groups to halt attacks on Israelis and then get Israel to agree to a truce, including a stop to military strikes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In the past, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has refused to halt such operations, including targeted killings of militants, unless the Palestinian security forces begin dismantling armed groups, something the Palestinians refuse to do.
Israel's position appears to have softened somewhat in recent days, and officials have said they want to give Qureia a chance.
In preparing for a summit, the Palestinians say they want to avoid the mistakes of their first premier, Mahmoud Abbas. He met four times with Sharon but failed to win concessions, including easing Israel's travel ban in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
That failure, along with turf battles with Yasser Arafat, led to Abbas' resignation Sept. 6, after just four months in office.
Qureia said Thursday he would meet Sharon only if he gets assurances that the travel bans would be eased significantly. A network of Israeli barriers, meant to keep away militants, has crippled the Palestinian economy. Even the Israeli army chief has said the closures are counterproductive, breeding hatred and more terrorism.
"If Israel respects our people and our president (Arafat) and lifts the siege and closure, I think the road will be open for this government to be successful," Qureia said after the Cabinet meeting.
In a telephone call Thursday evening, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Qureia that Israeli-Palestinian meetings were important for progress on the "road map," Palestinian officials said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Powell told Qureia the new Palestinian government must declare its firm opposition to terrorism, and "performance is what counts."
Israel and the United States, which want to sideline Arafat, have expressed concern that the Palestinian leader remains in control of security forces in Qureia's new government. However, Israelis now seem more accommodating toward Qureia, widely known as Abu Ala, than they were when he was first nominated.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said a Sharon-Qureia summit meeting could take place in 10 days, after Sharon's trip to Italy at the beginning of next week.
Shalom said he has already drawn up a "positive agenda" for the talks "to ease the pressure on the Palestinians and the Israelis and to create the base through which we will be able to enter real negotiations." He did not elaborate.
Until recently, Israel had insisted its leaders would not deal with the Qureia government until it takes steps against violent groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Sharon dropped the precondition two weeks ago.
Qureia, meanwhile, disclosed that an international donors conference scheduled in Rome next Tuesday has been postponed until Dec. 12, apparently because of the delays in forming a government.
The international community sends about $1 billion a year to the Palestinians. The funds are used for humanitarian projects and help prop up the Palestinian Authority, which would otherwise cease to function.
The Palestinian finance minister, Salam Fayad, had stayed home for several days in protest over the deadlock between Qureia and Arafat. Fayad will be the key figure at the conference, presenting the Palestinian budget for 2004.
In another development, the Israeli military on Thursday expelled another Palestinian from the West Bank to Gaza.
Taha Dweik, according to the military an explosives expert in the Islamic Jihad group, was sent from the city of Hebron to Gaza after Israel's Supreme Court upheld the expulsion order.
Altogether, 18 expulsion orders were issued, and the first one was carried out last week. Another Palestinian, Moshref Bethor, was expelled to Gaza early Thursday, but Israel said he was not part of the 18; rather, he had agreed to go to Gaza instead of serving time in prison. However, Bethor denied that.
The Israeli military said the expulsions are meant to prevent further terror attacks. Human rights groups have denounced the practice.