JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) told his Palestinian counterpart he would negotiate the creation of a state for the Palestinians if they fight terrorism, setting a guarded but optimistic tone for next week's three-way summit with President Bush.
Though statements from both sides early Friday, following Sharon's meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search), were couched in positive terms, in the end, they maintained their basic positions.
The Palestinians demanded implementation of the U.S.-backed "road map" plan leading to a Palestinian state, and the Israelis conditioned all additional steps on a crackdown against violent groups responsible for attacks against Israelis.
Abbas prefers stopping violence through dialogue and told an Israeli newspaper that an agreement with the largest militant group, Hamas (search), could be completed next week. Hamas has been responsible for most of the suicide bombing attacks that have killed more than 300 Israelis in 32 months of violence.
The three-hour meeting Thursday night between Sharon and Abbas, their second in two weeks, came ahead of a summit between the two leaders and Bush planned for the Jordanian resort of Aqaba next Wednesday.
Before that summit, Bush will meet with Arab leaders in Cairo to enlist their support. In an interview with the Dubai-based Arabic satellite channel, Al Arabiya, Bush said he would tell Arab leaders that peace is possible and that he will work to achieve that goal. Bush's remarks were simultaneously translated into Arabic, and an English transcript was not available.
The Palestinians are demanding Israel make a clear statement endorsing their right to a state at that meeting.
Declarations by each side recognizing the rights of the other to statehood and security are supposed to be the first step of the road map, which begins with a halt to 32 months of bloody violence and leads to a full-fledged Palestinian state in 2005.
The Israelis are insisting that first, the Palestinians must dismantle armed cells, confiscate illegal weapons and jail militants.
In a statement after the meeting at Sharon's Jerusalem office, Israel said it would cancel a two-week closure on the West Bank and Gaza that had idled Palestinians who work in Israel. The Israelis said they would allow 25,000 Palestinians to return to their jobs.
Also, the Israelis said they would release some Palestinian prisoners, without giving numbers. At the request of the Palestinians, they pledged to free Khaled Abu Sukar, the oldest Palestinian held by the Israelis, said to be in his 50s, and Tayseer Khaled, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee.
The statement did not say when the measures would be taken. Sharon aide Raanan Gissin would say only, "We will do it in a very short period."
Israel repeated its offer to pull its troops back from West Bank Palestinian towns and cities reoccupied in a series of incursions over the past year and redeploy troops in Gaza to give Palestinians a chance to enforce security, an Israeli term for preventing terror attacks.
However, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said this could be done only "after reaching an agreement on a cease fire with Hamas and the other Palestinian groups. Now we will try our best to reach this agreement ... and I'm optimistic."
Moving in the direction of the declaration the Palestinians demand, the Israeli statement said that if the Palestinians eliminate terrorism, Israel would negotiate a peace agreement according to principles set down in a Bush speech from last June, "in which framework it will be agreed to establish a provisional Palestinian state and afterward a permanent state."
Israel's government prefers to link its policy to the Bush speech, rather than the road map, because it objects to some of the wording in the international plan, sponsored by the European Union, Russia and the United Nations along with the United States.
After the meeting, the Palestinian participants returned to the West Bank town of Ramallah to brief Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He said he would convene a meeting of the PLO executive to review the results of the talks.
Israel and the United States have been trying to sideline Arafat, banning meetings of their officials with him, charging that he is involved in Palestinian terrorism. Arafat only grudgingly appointed Abbas last month as the first Palestinian prime minister under stiff international pressure, and since then, the veteran leader has taken steps to reassert his authority.
Under the law that created the premiership, the PLO executive has the final say on peace talks and Arafat controls PLO bodies.