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Talks in Mideast Called 'Positive'

In advance of a summit next week, Sharon says Israel will ease curbs on Palestinians if Abbas quickly cracks down on militant groups.

May 30, 2003|Rebecca Trounson and Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — Seeking to create momentum for a U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday that he will ease a tight closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip this weekend and free some Palestinian prisoners, but he insisted that Abbas move swiftly to crack down on militant groups.

Abbas has been holding cease-fire talks with the militant organization Hamas, but no agreement has been reached.

Meeting Thursday night in Sharon's heavily guarded Jerusalem office, the leaders and their aides shared a dinner of stuffed chicken and salads as they sought ways to take the first small steps along the U.S.-charted "road map," as the peace initiative is known. Both sides later described the nearly three-hour session, the leaders' second in as many weeks, as a "positive" effort.

The meeting came four days after Sharon persuaded his reluctant Cabinet to endorse the plan, which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state, and as the two sides prepared for a high-stakes summit in Jordan next week with President Bush. The U.S. president also will meet in Egypt with Arab leaders to urge their support for the initiative. The Palestinians already had endorsed the plan.

The flurry of diplomatic activity, along with the positive tone that emerged from Thursday's meeting, raised a slight hope of some success for the peace talks aimed at ending the violent uprising that has claimed 3,000 lives here in less than three years.

But officials said that the discussions here served almost as a preparatory session before Wednesday's summit at the Red Sea resort of Aqaba and that the substance of the peace proposal, a detailed three-year, three-phase plan, was not discussed.

"We're taking the first steps on a very long journey," Raanan Gissin, a Sharon advisor, said after the meeting.

The two sides carried sharply different agendas into the session but were expected to try to make at least minimal progress, aides said: Neither wanted to disappoint the American president or be blamed for scuttling Bush's first foray into Middle East peacemaking.

During the discussions, Sharon renewed an offer to the Palestinians to begin a gradual pullout from portions of the northern Gaza Strip and some West Bank cities and to turn the areas over to Palestinian security forces. The withdrawals would amount to a series of tests of the ability of the Palestinian police, whose infrastructure was largely destroyed in the recent fighting with Israel, to exercise control.

But Abbas, concerned that his police force, particularly in the West Bank, is not ready, has not officially responded to the offer, Palestinian officials said. "He did not say no but not yet a full yes to this either," Information Minister Nabil Amr said.

Sharon also repeated his demand that the Palestinians immediately start to disarm and dismantle such violent organizations as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But the two sides have drastically different ideas of controlling militants. While Israel calls for the groups' leaders to be jailed and guns confiscated, Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, so far has opted for negotiation rather than force.

In an interview published Thursday in Yediot Aharonot, an Israeli daily, Abbas said he is close to obtaining an agreement with Hamas to end its attacks on Israel. The Israelis -- and U.S. officials -- have told the Palestinians that a cease-fire is not enough, but that militants must be arrested and disarmed.

Abdulaziz Rantisi, a senior political leader for Hamas, said Thursday that the organization was considering Abbas' request for a cease-fire but had not yet made a decision.

Abbas previously turned down Sharon's offer to pull troops out of the northern farmlands of the Gaza Strip. At the time, Abbas said he didn't want to begin work until Israel endorsed the peace plan. But some Palestinians regarded the Israeli offer as a trap.

If a suicide bomber slipped away and arrived in Israel, "Sharon would say Abu Mazen had failed," said Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian political scientist and pollster.

The Israeli leader also told Abbas that he would take steps this weekend to ease conditions for Palestinians who have been confined to their villages and cities for months. He said he would relax restrictions on travel for government officials, allow some Palestinians to return to jobs inside Israel and release a number of Palestinian prisoners and others held without charges.

The steps were significant and would help ease tensions, Amr said. "These are the most important part of the discussion," he said. "It will help make the road map more popular with the Palestinians."

Sharon's office said those to be released included Tayseer Khaled, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, and Ahmad abu Sukar, who has been held since 1976. Further details were not disclosed.

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