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Israeli, Palestinian leaders to meet for highest-level talks in 4 years

JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas agreed Wednesday to meet next week in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik in Egypt. The summit would be the highest level Israeli-Palestinian contact in four years.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak extended the invitation to the leaders to meet next Tuesday. King Abdullah II of Jordan also will attend.

The summit will provide the first real chance for Israel and the Palestinians to discuss peace issues since the death in late November of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom Sharon deeply distrusted and accused of backing terrorism.

Abbas, who won a decisive electoral victory as head of the Palestinian Authority in early January, has long opposed violence against Israel. Israel agreed last month to pull back from some military positions in the predominantly Palestinian Gaza Strip and West Bank after Abbas deployed Palestinian security forces in an effort to halt militants' attacks on Israel.

Sharon and Abbas aides have stressed that next week's summit must produce lasting, tangible results. Even so, the distance between the men is enormous.

Sharon wants the talks to focus on a single issue: ending Palestinian violence. He needs an end to the violence in order to quiet domestic political opponents so he can proceed with his proposed pullout of Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip next summer.

Abbas has his eye on far more, including a formal truce with Israel, the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and blanket amnesty for Palestinian militants.

A final meeting to resolve agenda issues is scheduled for Thursday.

"It is basically very important to have a right beginning," said Hassan Abu Libdeh, a senior Palestinian official.

"With Egypt now involved, Israel will have to deliver something that lives up to the occasion," he added in comments that appeared to be intended to pressure Sharon for concessions.

Expectations are cautious nonetheless.

When Abbas was Arafat's prime minister, he and Sharon embraced a U.S.-sponsored "road map" leading to an independent Palestinian state during a June 2003 summit with President Bush in Aqaba, Jordan. But fighting resumed two months later, after a Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem killed 23 Israelis and injured 130.

"Everyone should understand the process is fragile, and if anything can torpedo this process it's terrorism," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Wednesday, in a remark that appeared to be intended to pressure Abbas to crack down harder on militants.

The summit is surrounded by diplomatic activity involving the United States and other countries in the region.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit Sharon in Jerusalem and Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday, but isn't scheduled to attend the summit.

The Bush administration is becoming more actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, although it remains to be seen whether it will make the sustained high-level effort that most outside experts think is necessary.

The administration is close to naming a special Middle East envoy, according to a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The envoy would facilitate confidence-building measures between Israelis and Palestinians, and probably would be a midlevel Foreign Service officer rather than a household name, the official said.

In his State of the Union address Wednesday, President Bush announced nearly $350 million in U.S assistance to the Palestinians, far above previous levels.

Of that amount, $50 million would be "quick disbursement" funds to aid the Palestinians in dealing with the expected Israeli pullout from Gaza, $200 million would be in a supplemental budget request and $100 million would go to the Palestinians via U.N. agencies, the official said.

The Egyptian government said in a statement that Mubarak had invited Sharon and Abbas to meet "due to the crucial stage the Middle East peace process is passing through and due to the opportunity available to make tangible progress on the Palestinian track."

The statement, carried by the state news agency MENA, said Mubarak and Sharon also would discuss the possibility of improving Israel's long-icy relations with Syria.

Mubarak has refused to meet Sharon since he became Israel's prime minister in 2001, and the trip to Egypt is a major coup for the Israeli leader.

Behind the scenes, Egyptian security officials are meeting with Palestinian militant leaders in a bid to strengthen the informal cease-fire that Abbas achieved last month. Syrian President Bashar Assad met with King Abdullah II in Jordan on Wednesday to discuss Syria's possible involvement in that process. A number of militant Palestinian groups have offices in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

The Palestinian cease-fire nearly unraveled two days ago, when militants launched mortar rounds at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip in response to what they charged was an Israeli shooting of a 10-year-old Palestinian schoolgirl. The random shooting in the southern Gaza town of Rafah remains unsolved.

Determined not to be left out, Israel's sworn enemy Iran extended an invitation to Abbas to visit, which his government said he'd accepted. Officially, Iran advocates the destruction of Israel and provides money and arms to key Palestinian militant groups, but the elected Iranian government has said it would accept a two-state solution if that's what the Palestinians wanted.

Israeli and Palestinian efforts to ease tensions continued Wednesday. Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, adviser to the defense minister, announced plans to take some Palestinian fugitives off Israel's most-wanted list. The fugitives would have to agree to hand in their weapons and sign a pledge not to attack Israel, an agreement that would be enforced, Gilad told Israel Army Radio.

Israel has arrested or assassinated hundreds of Palestinians on the list in the past four years and is chasing several hundred more, according to Palestinian estimates.

The two sides reached an agreement in principle for Palestinians to resume building the Gaza Seaport, near the village of Sheik Eljeen in the Gaza Strip, according to Palestinian officials, who also want to rebuild the war-ravaged Gaza International Airport in Rafah. Both are key to improving the Palestinian economy, especially in the poverty-stricken and isolated Gaza Strip.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report from Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE GRAPHICS on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, 20030529 BUSH Mideast

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