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Sharon Casts Doubt on Meeting With Abbas

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) cast doubt Sunday on whether a planned meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) would take place, while Israel's defense minister rejected two key Palestinian demands meant to make the meeting a success.

The two sides have said they want the meeting, tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, to produce concrete results but are deadlocked over Israel's promised handover of West Bank towns, more Palestinian prisoner releases, and the Palestinians' demand for more weapons for their security services.

The meeting would be the first between the two leaders since Israel completed its Gaza Strip withdrawal last month.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) opposes the handover of more West Bank towns to the Palestinians or supplying the Palestinian Authority with weapons, the ministry said Sunday.

Israel was to turn over five West Bank towns to Palestinian control under a cease-fire agreement the two sides reached in February. But the process stalled after two towns, Jericho and Tulkarem, were handed over, with Israel demanding the Palestinians first disarm militants in towns handed over. Israel later retook Tulkarem after a suicide bombing in an Israeli city.

The Defense Ministry also said that Mofaz objects to responding to the Palestinian Authority's demand for more weapons. The Palestinians say they are ill-equipped to take control of Palestinian streets, but Israel says Abbas hasn't used the means already at his disposal to confront militant groups that both attack Israel and feud internally.

Abbas recently banned militants from publicly displaying weapons, but has resisted international pressure to disarm militants, fearing it would provoke civil war. Militants repeatedly have ignored the ban.

In addition for pushing for an Israeli troop withdrawal from West Bank towns, the Palestinians have also demanded the release of some of the more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners Israel holds.

In a possible concession, Israeli security officials decided over the weekend that they would not object to a government-approved prisoner release, officials said Saturday.

Sharon told Israeli Cabinet ministers on Sunday that he wasn't sure his meeting with Abbas would take place this week, meeting participants said.

"We don't go to a meeting unprepared," they quoted Sharon as saying.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said after a meeting with Sharon's top adviser, Dov Weisglass, that the two sides would decide Monday whether the meeting would take place as scheduled.

On Saturday, Abbas said the Palestinians "don't want a public relations summit. ... We want a meaningful summit with results."

Abbas is due to travel to Washington later this month to meet with President Bush, and would be reluctant to arrive without any concrete achievements from a meeting with Sharon.

The two men were to have met last week, but the meeting was postponed after Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel touched off an Israeli military offensive in Gaza and the West Bank.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian militant was killed early Sunday in a clash with Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Nablus, the army and Palestinians said.

The troops spotted three Palestinian gunmen and shot toward them, the army said. In the ensuing exchange of fire, one of the militants was killed, it said.

A militant group affiliated with the ruling Fatah Party, the Al Aqsa Brigades, confirmed that three of its men had attempted to carry out an attack on troops and one was killed in a shootout. It said the attack was retaliation for the killing of three Palestinian militants in Nablus earlier this month.

Israel reopened a cargo crossing with the Gaza Strip on Sunday, and Palestinians said this would alleviate a shortage of fruit and dairy products in the territory.

The Karni passage and others with the Palestinian area had been closed almost continuously since Sept. 24 after dozens of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel. As a result, the shelves of Gaza shops had been thinned, primarily of fruit and dairy products, and in some places, baby formula, Palestinians said.