Published May 17, 2003
JERUSALEM – The Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers held the first top-level talks in over two years Saturday, but violence threatened to overshadow the three-hour summit.
Palestinians targeted Israelis in two separate attacks in the West Bank (search). In Hebron, a homicide bomber killed an Israeli man and his pregnant wife. At the Jewish settlement of Shaarei Tikvah, two gunmen tried to enter the grounds before being killed at a perimeter fence.
In clashes in Beit Hanoun, a city in the northern Gaza Strip taken over by Israel earlier this week, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian gunman. Nine Palestinians were injured including a gunman and five teenagers, doctors said. The military said two of the teens threw a firebomb at a military vehicle.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas (search), discussed sharp differences over the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace at Sharon's Jerusalem office. The two had entered the talks with a long list of conflicting demands in the highest level meeting between the two sides since fighting erupted 31 months ago.
As the talks opened, Sharon expressed his "rage" about the Hebron attack, a statement from the Israeli prime minister said. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas "agreed that stopping terrorism is the first step toward any progress," the statement said.
Abbas' office issued a statement that said Abbas asked Sharon to halt military operations; allow Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- who has been confined to his office for more than a year -- freedom of movement; and to lift West Bank travel restrictions. The Israeli statement after the meeting spoke only of the need to stop Palestinian attacks.
The two leaders would hold more talks after Sharon returns from a U.S. trip next week, according to the statement.
Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia (search), who attended the meeting, said the Palestinians asked Sharon to accept the "road map," a three-stage guide designed to bring a rapid end to violence and build a Palestinian state by 2005.
Sharon would not accept the plan. He said he wants to discuss more than a dozen Israeli objections to the "road map" with President Bush (search) in a White House meeting on Tuesday.
Qureia said Sharon also proposed removing Israeli troops from some parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (search). Israeli media have reported that Sharon would offer to pull out soldiers from sections of the northern Gaza Strip as a test for Palestinian security forces who would then be expected to prevent rocket fire on Israel.
"I think now everything depends on his (Sharon's) meeting with President Bush," Qureia said. In the statement, Abbas said, "The road map can only succeed if Israel clearly accepts the road map in its entirety."
The summit could affect the form of future U.S. mediation efforts. If top-level Israeli-Palestinian talks fail to produce results, Washington might have to push the sides harder or even consider imposing solutions.
President Bush has not been specific about how far he is willing to go in ensuring progress on the "road map," which requires Israel to freeze settlement construction and withdraw from Palestinian towns in the first stage.
Israel has said it will not budge until Abbas has taken real steps against the armed groups, including arrests and weapons sweeps. Regarding the road map, Sharon was not expected to give an answer before his meeting with Bush.
Earlier this week, Israeli troops seized Beit Hanoun in response to renewed rocket fire on the Israeli town of Sderot, not far from Sharon's sheep farm in the Negev Desert. However, Israeli military reporters have said the main reason for the takeover appeared to be to create a bargaining chip for the summit.
In the divided West Bank town of Hebron, a Palestinian disguised as an observant Jew blew himself up in a downtown square, near Jewish settler enclaves. The bomber killed an Israeli man and his pregnant wife, the army said.
The assailant was later identified by relatives as Fuad Qawasmeh, 21, a supporter of the Islamic militant group Hamas (search), which has carried out scores of attacks on Israelis since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.
Palestinian militias have threatened to sabotage the road map, saying they would not halt attacks and would resist forcefully if Abbas tried to disarm them.
Later Saturday, as the meeting between Abbas and Sharon was winding down, at least one Palestinian gunman reportedly went on a shooting rampage in the Jewish settlement of Shaarei Tikvah. Paramedics said one man was critically wounded.
The Abbas-Sharon meeting is the first Israeli-Palestinian summit since September 2000 when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Several days after that meeting, Sharon, then the opposition leader, made a demonstrative visit to a disputed Jerusalem holy site, triggering large-scale Palestinian protests that quickly escalated into the current fighting. In October 2000, Barak and Arafat attended Egyptian-sponsored cease-fire talks, but were part of a larger group of leaders, including then-U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Many Palestinian officials said they believe Saturday's summit largely serves Israeli interests. Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said Sharon is "using this meeting as a political ploy to mislead, or to give the impression that he can carry out negotiations and that he does have a Palestinian partner."
Sharon aides declined comment Saturday.
Earlier Saturday, Abbas accepted the resignation of Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator who stepped down after being excluded from the summit. Erekat's accessibility and fluent English had made him a sought-after guest on TV news shows and a prominent spokesman for the Palestinian cause.
Erekat, who participated in negotiations with Israel for a decade, is close to Arafat, whom Israel and the United States are trying to sideline. Erekat's resignation was apparently prompted by the perceived slight, but growing tensions between Arafat and Abbas might also have played a role.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.