RAMALLAH, West Bank ( – Israeli and Palestinian premiers will meet soon, Israel's prime minister said Monday, opening prospects for talks to end more than three years of conflict as a top Egyptian official came to the West Bank (search) to promote a cease-fire.
However, violence continued early Tuesday. Two Israelis were killed in a Palestinian shooting attack outside Jerusalem (search), rescue services said. Shots were fired from a vehicle as it passed an army checkpoint where the two Israelis were standing on a road near the town of Bethlehem, Army Radio reported.
Israel pulled troops out of Bethlehem (search) and turned the town over to Palestinian security several weeks ago. It was not immediately clear if the attack would hamper talks on a ceasefire.
Speaking to Italian Jewish leaders on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said he would meet his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia (search), "in the coming days." It would be their first summit since Qureia took office more than a month ago.
Reacting, a Palestinian official said no date had been set, and careful preparations had to be made before a summit meeting.
The meeting might restart work on implementing the frozen U.S.-backed Mideast "road map" peace plan. Negotiations stalled amid a two-month-long Palestinian political crisis that ended when Qureia's full government was installed last week.
It was the first time Sharon confirmed he would be meeting with Qureia, though it was widely expected after Qureia's Cabinet was approved. Sharon made the announcement to Italian Jewish leaders during a trip to Rome.
Sharon met with Qureia's predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, four times, but Palestinians complained of few concrete results. Abbas resigned Sept. 6.
Qureia has said he would be prepared to meet Sharon, but only if a positive outcome was assured. The Palestinians demand Israel remove roadblocks and other restrictions that have crippled Palestinian life during the conflict. Israel says the barriers are necessary to keep attackers away.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator with Israel, told The Associated Press no date had been set for a summit. "This meeting needs to be well prepared," he said, "but we are not against meeting with Sharon."
In Rome, Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said the meeting could possibly come next week, although nothing had yet been arranged.
"There's no problem on our part," he said. "The other side asked for some time."
Meanwhile, Egyptian security chief Omar Suleiman met Monday with Israeli officials as well as Qureia and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, noting "positive signs" from the Israelis. A cease-fire is considered an essential first step toward progress along the "road map," which leads to a Palestinian state in 2005.
Qureia has said he wants to persuade militant groups to halt attacks on Israelis, then negotiate a cease-fire with Sharon. Palestinian militants say they are ready for a truce, provided Israel stops targeted killings, incursions and arrest sweeps, according to an Egyptian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Suleiman told the Palestinians that Israeli leaders appeared receptive, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said.
"He did say that there is an opportunity that must be taken advantage of. There is a positive atmosphere and a new language," Shaath said. "He told us that he is optimistic."
Suleiman invited Palestinian groups for talks Nov. 24 in Cairo, Shaath said. "Today's meeting was positive, but there is a need for further talks," he said.
Israel has said in the past it will only halt military strikes if Palestinian security forces begin dismantling militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. However, Israel has signaled recently it is willing to test a truce for a limited period, without insisting on an immediate crackdown on armed groups.
Palestinian leaders have resisted a crackdown, saying they fear it will trigger internal fighting.
The road map calls for a crackdown -- and also requires Israel to dismantle dozens of illegal settlement outposts and freeze all construction in settlements.
Sharon is under growing pressure at home and abroad to bring an end to three years of violence.
Last week, four former directors of Israel's Shin Bet security service warned Israel is headed for disaster if the conflict with the Palestinians is not settled soon. They also accused Sharon of stalling in order to avoid making concessions.
At the same time, a symbolic peace deal negotiated by prominent Israelis and Palestinians has won attention and praise, including from Secretary of State Colin Powell.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov also welcomed the plan, saying it complemented the road map. Under the plan, Israel would hand the Palestinians almost all the West Bank and Gaza and much of east Jerusalem, but would not have to accept Palestinian refugees in large numbers.
Asked about truce prospects, Suleiman said: "Hopefully, there is a cease-fire and dialogue and many good things."
Suleiman earlier held talks with Israeli officials and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer.
A Hamas leader, Mousa Abu Marzook, told Egyptian intelligence officials in Cairo this month his group is ready for a truce if it is backed by the international community and Israel commits to it in public.
Nafez Azzam, an Islamic Jihad spokesman in Gaza, said Monday his group is also willing to halt attacks on Israelis "if Israel stops its attacks on our people."