Israelis, Palestinians Prepare for Summit

A Saturday meeting between Israel's defense minister and a top Palestinian security official went well, Israeli officials said, as the two sides try to reconcile widely differing expectations for an upcoming summit between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) and Palestinian security official Mohammed Dahlan (search), a top adviser to Abbas, met late Saturday under tight security at a Tel Aviv hotel. The talks focused on security matters.

Israeli officials described a "good positive atmosphere," and the two men would meet again in the coming days. Dahlan left the hotel without speaking to reporters.

The talks were part of preparations for a summit between Abbas and Sharon expected in the second week of February. The summit would be a crucial step in the push to end four years of hostilities and revive Israel-Palestinian peace talks.

Also Saturday, a political rally by Hamas (search) in the Gaza refugee camp Maghazi turned violent as supporters of the rival Fatah faction opened fire, sparking a melee that wounded more than 20 people. The rally was held to celebrate Hamas' victory in municipal elections in Gaza earlier this week.

The summit meeting would be the highest-level contacts between Israel and the Palestinians since June 2003 when Sharon and Abbas — then prime minister — launched the "road map" peace plan.

There were more signs of a warming in relations on Saturday. Palestinians saying they were close to a deal with militant factions to halt attacks on Israeli targets, while an Israeli official said the government would do "everything" in its power to encourage the current calming of tensions.

However, crucial differences on what can be expected from the summit have begun to emerge.

Palestinian officials said Saturday they expect a wide-ranging agenda that will include the declaration of a formal truce, a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and the resumption of peace negotiations.

Israel however appears reluctant to move from security concerns into political matters.

Abbas has been trying to co-opt Palestinian militants into the political system, and has already coaxed them into temporarily halting attacks on Israelis.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Saturday that Abbas is "very close" to a political agreement with the militants that would include a cease-fire, but added that a formal halt to violence would depend on Israel.

He said Israel must formally accept a cease-fire, withdraw troops from West Bank cities and release some of the 7,000 prisoners it is holding to move forward with the accord.

"There is a temporary cease-fire and we are waiting for an Israeli response," Shaath told The Associated Press by phone from Syria, where he met government officials and the leader of Hamas. "If Israel reciprocated, the cease-fire will turn from a temporary into a permanent one."

Shaath said Egypt, a key mediator, has invited representatives of militant groups to Cairo next week to continue the efforts.

During Abbas' brief tenure, Israel and the Palestinians have made significant progress on security matters. Abbas has deployed thousands of Palestinian police throughout the Gaza Strip to prevent attacks on Israelis, resulting in a sharp drop in violence.

In return, the Israeli military has halted raids in Gaza and scaled back activities in the West Bank.

Saturday's meeting between Dahlan and Mofaz was expected to focus on an Israeli military pullback from five West Bank cities and other ways to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement.

Earlier, Amos Gilad, a senior adviser to Mofaz who participated in the meeting, said Israel is ready to consider widespread concessions.

"There will be a new attitude of flexibility with real intention to give a chance to the new Palestinian government, which has declared that its interest is to fight terror," Gilad told Israel Radio. "At this stage the defense establishment, including the Israeli army and all the rest are willing to do everything, really everything, to allow this seedling to blossom."

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the United States "would be glad to see talks being held at the highest level." Newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is planning to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories next week.

Sharon has said he is pleased with Abbas' efforts so far. He has begun to talk about coordinating Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza this year with Abbas rather than pulling out unilaterally as previously planned.

Israeli officials said the agenda for the summit will be finalized in coming days but it is premature to begin thinking about the road map. No date has been announced yet.

While welcoming the recent calm, one senior official dismissed calls for a mutual cease-fire, repeating Israel's stance that Palestinians must dismantle terrorist organizations before political negotiations can start.

Abbas has so far rejected calls to confront the militants, preferring to persuade them into halting their activities. The Palestinians maintain this is sufficient for resuming peace negotiations.