Difficult second meeting for Sharon, Abbas

Despite recent cooperative moves, Tuesday's summit between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders achieved little.

A tense afternoon summit Tuesday between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ended with few concessions from either side.

Mr. Sharon did, however, say he would agree to hand over two towns to Palestinian control if Mr. Abbas is successful in reining in militants and keeping a lid on violence.

For Abbas's part, he pledged, according to Palestinian officials, to work toward "one authority, one gun" in the territories, meaning he'll attempt to disarm Palestinian factions or put them under the command of his security chiefs.

While the summit avoided any decisions on the toughest of issues - Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank or gestures aimed at easing conditions for Palestinians - the fact that these two leaders have met twice in five months is a positive step for Palestinian-Israeli relations since former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death in November.

But amid domestic difficulties for both Sharon and Abbas, analysts doubt whether the two would have met without outside prodding. Sharon has seen support for the Gaza disengagement drop in the wake of attacks by Palestinian militants, and Abbas faces disappointment with the lack of progress on easing hardship conditions in the West Bank and continued internal infighting among armed groups.

"The meeting probably wouldn't have taken place without American pressure on Sharon," says Yossi Alpher, the former head of Tel Aviv University's Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies. "In many ways it's punching a card, to check off that we've done this. This is not a crucial dramatic summit, by any means."

At the first Sharon-Abbas meeting, a four-way summit with Egypt and Jordan held at a Sinai resort town, the leaders committed themselves to a truce in the fighting that broke out in September 2000. But the cease-fire has been incomplete, with Israel accusing the Palestinians of failing to confront militants, and the Palestinians blaming Israel for not removing roadblocks or keeping control over cities in the West Bank.

Israel has been moving ahead with a plan to evacuate 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank. The effort to cooperate on the pullback were buoyed by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's announcement Sunday of an agreement on the demolition of 1,200 settler houses, and on Monday Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres reached a compromise to enable Israel to withdraw troops.

A Palestinian official warned that the summit would be a failure if it focused solely on Israel's unilateral disengagement rather than easing conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon offered to hand over security responsibility for the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Qalqilya to the Palestinian Authority in two weeks, and allow work on an airport and seaport in Gaza. But the gestures were conditioned on a drop in violence by Palestinian militants.

"All of these measures that we are willing to accomplish are subject to the security situation," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Sharon in remarks made to CNN. "And as long as terrorism continues to run rampant ... there's no way we can move forward."

It was the first meeting between the two since a February summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh buoyed hopes for a resumption of peace talks between the sides after almost five years of violence. But a rash of attacks by Palestinian militants has eroded an already delicate cease-fire as well as a good deal of trust between the sides.

Joined by a group of aides and seated on opposite ends of a long table near a courtyard in the prime minister's residence, the leaders looked tense and sober. At a press conference in Ramallah following the meeting Palestinians complained the Israeli offers did not meet their expectations.

"What was presented to us was not equally general or serious. Overall, what was presented to us was not convincing, was not satisfying at all," said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, in a news conference in Ramallah carried on the CNN. "It was a difficult meeting."

The summit contrasted with Ms. Rice's positive assessment of cooperation on the pullout and her announcement of an agreement the demolition of settler homes.

"Substantively, on the ground, it does nothing," says a Palestinian negotiator who didn't be named. "You can be optimistic about the technicalities of the disengagement, but is it really going to create the momentum everyone thought it would? No."

Just hours before the meeting, Israel's army arrested 52 Islamic Jihad militants throughout the West Bank, ending a moratorium on roundups that was adopted in order to maintain a calm with the Palestinians. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told reporters on Tuesday that the operation was made necessary by a spate of recent attacks on Israelis by Islamic Jihad militants.

"When I noticed that Islamic Jihad is carrying out terrorist acts, and isn't a partner to the calm there was no other way but to approve a firm operation against terrorists," he said. "The operation will continue in every place and at all times."

Islamic Jihad militants was believed to be responsible for an ambush of an Israeli car in the West Bank town of Baka al-Sharkiyah on Monday which killed Yevgeny Reider, a resident of a nearby Jewish settlement.

Later on Monday, a would-be suicide bomber was stopped at the Erez border crossing in northern Gaza. Israel said that the woman had instructions to detonate an explosive belt at an Israeli hospital where she was being treated for burns.

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