Mideast summit on peace planned in Egypt next week

Thursday, February 3, 2005

CAIRO, Egypt -- Egypt on Wednesday invited the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan to a summit next week, a move indicating confidence that a much-anticipated breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in the offing.

Word of the summit, which all parties agreed to attend, came as Damascus-based leaders of the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad met Egyptian intelligence officials in Cairo, seen as a key step toward securing a truce from Palestinian factions.

The summit, to be held Tuesday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, was expected to focus on a possible Palestinian prisoner release, the fate of Palestinian fugitives and a West Bank troop redeployment.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan have all accepted invitations to attend from summit host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The White House welcomed the development. "That's an encouraging step that's being taken to build upon the recent discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "There have been a number of encouraging steps from both parties that show that they want to seize this opportunity before us to move forward."

The expected arrival of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the region over the weekend also intensified pressure on both sides to settle some differences over what should be announced after the meeting. There has been no word on whether Rice might attend the summit.

Israeli television reported the summit would also likely result in the return of Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors to Israel. Egypt withdrew its envoy after the latest Palestinian uprising began in September 2000. The violence also caused Jordan to delay posting a new ambassador. Egyptian and Jordanian officials declined to confirm the reports.

Judith Kipper, an analyst at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said the talks would be about "feel-good symbolism, and then the real work begins."

The Egyptian president's office released a statement saying the summit was arranged in view of "the critical state that the peace process in the Middle East is going through" and was designed to "realize tangible progress on the Palestinian track."

The statement also said Mubarak, who had steadfastly refused to meet with Sharon since he became prime minister in 2001, would discuss with the Israeli premier ways "to push peace on the Syrian track."

Damascus has been saying it wants to resume peace talks with Israel, which collapsed in 2000. But Israel says Syria must first clamp down on Damascus-based Palestinian militant groups responsible for killing hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings.

Egypt, a key U.S. ally, is seen as a linchpin in Middle East peace mediation.

The Arab state was the first to sign a peace treaty with Israel and has been trying for months to coax Palestinian militant factions to stop attacks against Israelis. Egypt is also expected to play a key role in developing Palestinian security services in neighboring Gaza following any planned Israeli withdrawal.

The announcement of the summit comes amid hopes of an imminent breakthrough in efforts to secure a cease-fire from Palestinian militants.

"There is no agreement yet on a truce" with Israel, Islamic Jihad spokesman Nafez Azzam said in a phone interview from the Gaza Strip. But the talks are "taking place in a positive atmosphere."

Militant leaders say any final agreement depends on Israel's willingness to make crucial concessions, including ending targeted killings of Palestinian leaders and releasing Palestinian prisoners.

Israel has resisted pledging to halt attacks on Palestinian militants but its officials have said they will "respond to quiet with quiet."

Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, met here Tuesday with Islamic Jihad's Damascus-based leader Ramadan Shallah. Suleiman is expected to meet Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal later Wednesday.

Egypt believes a truce can revive the U.S.-backed "road map" plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace and wants to ensure calm in the Gaza Strip after Israel carries out its planned military withdrawal.

Mashaal told the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera that a Palestinian cease-fire was not "dependent on a summit," but on Israeli willingness to offer concessions.

"The main issue is an Israeli regression on its position, which means an Israeli commitment to the conditions put forth by the resistance," Mashaal said. "Without this commitment, if there are many summits, the situation won't change."

But despite the recent momentum, concerns persist about the ability of Palestinian security forces to restrain militant groups.

"The Palestinian leader is making a full effort against any kind of military operation against Israel," said Egypt's last ambassador to Israel, Mohammed Bassiouni, who now heads a security committee on Egypt's advisory Shura Council.

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