The Israeli and Palestinian Prime Ministers, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, met for the first time last night since Mr Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) was appointed last month.
But the meeting, aimed at resolving some of the sharpest differences over a US-backed "roadmap" for peace, was overshadowed by a fresh wave of violence.
A Palestinian suicide bomber killed an Israeli settler and his pregnant wife in the West Bank and Israeli troops killed an armed Palestinian and injured nine in the Gaza Strip. The suicide bomber, disguised as an orthodox Jew, blew himself up in the centre of Hebron where 400 militant Jewish settlers live in a fortress-like enclave among 120,000 Palestinians. The bombing was a sharp reminder of the difficulties the two Prime Ministers face.
Their summit at Mr Sharon's Jerusalem residence last night was the highest-level encounter since the Palestinian intifada erupted in September 2000, but the meeting generated only modest expectations. Both sides were looking ahead to Mr Sharon's talks with President Bush in Washington this week. The Americans are expected to press Israel to begin implementing the three-phase "roadmap", whose destination is a Palestinian state by the end of 2005.
A senior Israeli official said: "This is intended as a real meeting. It's not a photo opportunity. But we're not looking for declarations, for signed documents. First, let's start moving."
Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian Labour Minister, said after a three-hour cabinet meeting in Ramallah yesterday afternoon: "We all know Sharon is not going to give us anything new before he meets Bush. The decision to meet was tactical more than anything else."
Mr Abbas, he explained, was responding to pressure from the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell. He said Mr Abbas didn't want to give Mr Sharon a chance to fob off the Americans by saying he would meet the Palestinians and see what they could offer.Reuse content