Sharon and Abbas to meet for first summit in four years

ARIEL SHARON, the Israeli Prime Minister, will meet Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President in Egypt next Tuesday in the first top-level summit between the two sides in the conflict for more than four years.

With the pace of Middle East diplomacy quickening in an effort to make the fragile de facto truce a basis for a return to the peace process, Mr Sharon announced his agreement to attend the summit hosted by the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. The meeting in the Sinai resort of Sharm el- Sheikh is also expected to be attended by King Abdullah of Jordan, which Israeli officials said yesterday they hoped would, if confirmed, further underline Arab support for Palestinian efforts to maintain a halt to militant violence.

The meeting will follow hard on a visit by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, who will meet Mr Sharon here on Sunday and the Palestinian leadership, including Mr Abbas, on Monday. The US embassy in Tel Aviv cast doubt on Israeli media reports that Ms Rice would also attend the summit, saying they were "way premature". Although Ms Rice is to give an important speech in Paris on Tuesday, an official did not rule out the possibility.

The Egyptian presidency said Mr Mubarak had invited the leaders to meet "in light of the delicacy of the stage the peace process in the Middle East is going through and in an endeavour to seize the auspicious opportunity to achieve tangible progress on the Palestinian track". The last face- to-face meeting between an Israeli Prime Minister and the top Palestinian leadership was the ill-starred summit chaired by President Bill Clinton, also at Sharm el-Sheikh between Ehud Barak in October 2000 and Yasser Arafat after the present uprising had begun. Although Mr Sharon met Mr Abbas in June 2003, the latter was Prime Minister and answerable to Mr Arafat whom Mr Sharon never met since taking office.

The summit was announced after a meeting here yesterday between Mr Sharon and Egypt's chief of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, who is also in talks with leaders of the Palestinian armed factions, including Khaled Mashaal, the Damascus Hamas leader he was due to meet in Cairo last night. The announcement of the summit is bound to intensify Palestinian hopes that Israel will agree at Sharm el-Sheikh to the central conditions demanded by the armed factions for a full ceasefire, including an end to the assassination and pursuit of wanted militants, and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Israel has already indicated it is prepared to halt targeted killings if a ceasefire holds, and there have been signs it might set up a joint committee with Palestinian security officials designed to allow Palestinians to disarm specific wanted militants instead of pursuing them itself.

Some Israeli politicians expect Ms Rice to try to balance the strongly pro-Israel stance of the present US administration with a clear message that Israel must conform to its own obligations under the internationally agreed road map for peace, including a freeze on settlements in the West Bank and the dismantling of settlement outposts.

Ms Rice has said Israel faced "fundamental choices" about creating conditions in which a new and "contiguous" Palestinian state could emerge. Without a viable Palestinian state, she said, "there really isn't going to be a peace".

The Israeli organisation Peace Now says there are 50 illegal outposts set up since March 2001 which the road map requires to be dismantled, and 3,500 housing units being built in the occupied territories, many outside designated construction boundaries.

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