Expectations low as sides prepare for Middle East summit

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The Independent Online

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with his Cabinet today to discuss Israel's position ahead of a crucial Middle East summit while Yasser Arafat held talks with political faction leaders including those from the Islamic militants groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with his Cabinet today to discuss Israel's position ahead of a crucial Middle East summit while Yasser Arafat held talks with political faction leaders including those from the Islamic militants groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Israel wants the extremist groups reined in, fearing a renewed wave of terror attacks.

After more than two weeks of deadly fighting that destroyed trust on both sides, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders grudgingly agreed to attend a summit in hopes of declaring a cease-fire - a far cry from optimistic assessments before the unrest that a final peace deal between the two was within reach.

"It will take a long time to rebuild trust," said Danny Yatom, Barak's security advisor.

Hopes for a success at Monday's gathering at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik - agreed upon after intense pressure from U.S. President Bill Clinton and other world leaders - appeared low on all sides.

"I really urge people not to have high expectations," said senior Palestinian Saeb Erekat.

"The good news is the parties have agreed to meet and the situation appears to be calmer," Clinton said Saturday. "But the path ahead is difficult. After the terrible events of the past few days, the situation is still quite tense."

Seventeen days of violence that has led to the deaths of nearly 100 people - most of them Palestinians - escalated dangerously on Thursday when a Palestinian mob beat two Israeli reserve soldiers to death, and Israel retaliated by firing rockets at Palestinian command centers.

Since then, low-level clashes and sporadic shootings have continued but overall violence has abated.

The Israeli army however warned that extremist Palestinian groups may seize the momentum of the recent violence to carry out terror attacks, possibly to derail prospects for a cessation in the fighting.

"It is clear that we have found ourselves in a situation where there is great will to carry out a terrorist attack," said Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Malcha. "It is possible that such an attack could interfere with a summit," he said.

In Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza Rafah, thousands of members of Arafat's Fatah faction urged Arafat to stay home. "The Sharm el Sheik summit is an Israeli and American trick," one banner said.

In the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, dozens of Arab residents were signed up for a new militia after thousands of mourners buried a man shot to death during clashes with Israeli troops a day before. The body was covered by a Palestinian flag, and borne by uniformed Palestinian police. Gunmen fired into the air chanting, "revenge, revenge," and "Down with the olive branch, long live the rifle!"

Israeli TV newscasts repeatedly ran the film of the exultant mob stomping and beating the two reserves soldiers in Ramallah on Thursday, and of a Gaza preacher delivering a Friday sermon that urged the faithful to "kill the Jews."

Even longtime Israeli doves who supported the peace process through previous moments of crisis were skeptical about reconciliation.

"It won't be easy today to meet with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority after these two difficult weeks," said Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, an architect of the first peace accord between the sides. "The main mission of the summit will be to put the cap back on the bottle once the genie is back inside."

The summit will be attended by Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Arafat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, King Abdullah II of Jordan and a senior European Union representative.

In discussions before the summit was announced, the two peace partners-turned-adversaries were reluctant even to discuss a limited cease-fire objective. Israel issued a statement saying that only issues relating to a cease-fire would be discussed.

After days of intense negotiations, Annan did manage to get Barak and Arafat to let go of preconditions standing in the way of a summit.

The Palestinians dropped their demand for the prior establishment of an international commission of inquiry into the violence, settling instead for a promise that it would be discussed at the summit. Israel has said that it would only trust the United States to lead a fair inquiry.

Arafat also wanted the Israelis to pull back from the edge of Palestinian-controlled areas, and to loosen an area closing that has kept thousands of Palestinians from traveling to jobs or relatives. The Israelis have said they are prepared to meet those demands once the violence abates.

Israelis softened the language on calls on Arafat to re-arrest dozens of Islamic militants freed in recent days.

The past two weeks have been a marked change from July, when negotiators at Camp David marveled at how far they had come. At that summit in the United States, the Palestinians were the first Arab negotiators willing to concede land Israel had captured in the 1967 Mideast war, and Barak violated two major taboos: discussing a return of Palestinian refugees, and sharing Jerusalem.

But the future of a Jerusalem shrine holy to both peoples ultimately broke up those talks and a Sept. 28 visit there by the leader of the hard-line Israeli opposition, Ariel Sharon, sparked the current unrest.

Barak, who has suffered in the polls as a result of the violence, has invited Sharon to join an emergency national unity government. It appeared early Sunday however that the hawkish Likud leader would decide whether to join Barak only after Monday's summit.

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