Sharon, Abbas to hold historic talks in Jerusalem

Date: 06-20-05

By Cynthia Johnston

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas hold talks in Jerusalem on Tuesday, the first meeting between an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian president in the holy city at the heart of the Middle East conflict.

A summit in Jerusalem, sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians and a flashpoint for violence, is symbolic for both Israel and the Palestinians. Both sides claim it for a capital.

The talks at Sharon's residence in Jerusalem on smoothing Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip follow prodding by President Bush's administration four months after the two sides agreed to a now frayed looking cease-fire.

Washington is counting on Israel's pullout from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank to kick-start a U.S.-backed international peace "road map" plan, which envisages the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But a Palestinian gunmen killed a Jewish settler in the West Bank on Monday and Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian civilian in Gaza, in the latest blows to the rocky cease-fire.

"This was an attempt ... to try and derail this (Gaza withdrawal) process," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Riyadh, referring to the killing of the Israeli settler.

"I hope the Palestinian Authority will act in any way it can to find the perpetrators," she said.

From Sharon's side, the talks will focus on steps to prevent Palestinian militants from disrupting the withdrawal -- due to start in August -- and filling a potential power vacuum in Gaza afterwards. Israel says Abbas has not done enough.

Abbas, whose election in January to succeed the late Yasser Arafat brought new hopes of peace, wants to be able to show militants he has won clear concessions from Israel in return for ensuring calm during the pullout.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting the region at the weekend to ease tensions, got both sides to agree to coordinate the withdrawal. Israel also agreed to demolish settler homes when it pulls out, as the Palestinians wish.


Abbas is under domestic pressure to show his non-violent methods can deliver.

Hundreds of Palestinians packed into his West Bank compound on Monday, urging him to press Sharon over roughly 8,000 Palestinians jailed by Israel.

The leading Islamic Jihad and Hamas militant groups have said freeing prisoners is key to preserving the wobbly truce.

Abbas would also call on Israel to relinquish its grip on Gaza's borders and allow a free passage corridor to and from the West Bank, his aides said.

Sharon's room for maneuver at home is limited, with strong rightist opposition to giving up any land.

More than the 900 prisoners have been released since the cease-fire began but Sharon has resisted U.S. requests for the freeing of more, a senior Israeli security source said.

Sharon has also rejected U.S. calls for the Palestinians to be allowed to obtain more weapons for their security forces and to rebuild Gaza's airport.

Israel has accused Abbas of not doing enough to subdue militants and said there would be no talks on statehood unless the groups were dismantled.

Israel never allowed Arafat to visit the city, accusing him of fomenting violence, but the moderate Abbas met Sharon in Jerusalem during a short spell as Palestinian prime minister.

Palestinians want Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel captured along with the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war, for a future capital. Israel regards the entire city as its eternal capital.

A meeting at the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza, where Israeli and Palestinian leaders have held talks in the past, would have put Abbas and Sharon within mortar bomb and rocket range of Palestinian militants opposed to their truce.



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