Associated Press WriterJERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will hold often-delayed truce talks Wednesday morning in the Gaza Strip, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
It would be the first of three sessions planned to work out a formal cease-fire and possibly a timetable for an eventual resumption of peace talks. Violence has dropped considerably since the two sides declared an informal truce last week.
The United States had exerted pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to permit the meetings. Washington believes that quelling Israeli-Palestinian violence is essential to its efforts to gain support in the Islamic world for a united offensive against terrorism in response to the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
Peres and Arafat are to meet at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Gaza International Airport, said a senior Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Sharon confirmed the Wednesday meeting in a phone conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, according to a Downing Street spokesman.
The meeting was made possible after Arafat unexpectedly found himself with free time on his hands. He was to have held talks Tuesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, the Syrians canceled without explanation, as Arafat was waiting to board a flight to Damascus. Arafat was kept waiting for two hours at Amman airport before returning to Gaza City, his advisers said.
Israel and the Palestinians have already agreed on the first elements of a formal cease-fire that would be adopted at the meeting. One of the provisions says that within 48 hours after the talks, Israel would begin easing its closure of Palestinian towns, said a Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
At the end of Wednesday's meeting, Peres and Arafat will issue a joint statement in which they renew their commitment to the terms of a cease-fire worked out earlier this year by CIA chief George Tenet, a senior Palestinian official said.
The two leaders would also reaffirm their support for recommendations by the international Mitchell Commission on how to resume peace talks, the official said. The panel proposed various confidence-building measures, including an Israeli freeze of settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Sharon vetoed a Peres-Arafat meeting earlier this week, arguing that Arafat had not done enough to stop violence. Far-right parties in Sharon's coalition have threatened to bolt over a Peres-Arafat meeting.
Peres, who has been pushing for the truce talks to go ahead, said Tuesday there has been extensive U.S. pressure on Sharon. "The president of the United States calls the prime minister of Israel and puts extraordinary pressure on him, asking that the meeting take place," Peres told Israel Radio. "Secretary of State Colin Powell calls three times a day to ask for the meeting."
The Hebrew daily Maariv on Tuesday published what it said were details of the truce agreement. It said that together with the easing of the blockade, the two sides would renew joint security cooperation and the Palestinians would implement counterterrorism measures.
During the first week following the Peres-Arafat meeting Israel would lift restrictions on Palestinian imports and allow the renewed movement of Palestinian security personnel between different regions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Maariv said.
Palestinian business people would again be allowed into Israel and more goods traffic would be permitted between Palestinian areas and Jordan, it added.