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Israelis, Palestinians to make parallel pledges on ending attacks

JERUSALEM—Israelis and Palestinians will declare an end to attacks on each other during a summit Tuesday at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, although officials said on Monday that the separate declarations by each side would fall short of a formal cease-fire to end more than four years of fighting.

The pledges, which will be made during a summit meeting of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, make public and explicit their commitment to end the conflict. The leaders' meeting is the first since Abbas won election a month ago following the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in November.

The form of the announcements—parallel statements rather than a joint declaration—underscores the difficulty of reaching peace. Abbas lacks control over militant groups responsible for most attacks on Israel, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Israel will declare an end to offensive Israeli military actions, including the search for wanted men, but the declaration is to be conditional on a cessation of Palestinian offensive actions, including production of Kassam rockets, weapons smuggling and incitement. This is largely a restatement of current Israeli policy.

"How can you have a cease-fire when one side can't even enforce it?" said a senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also shied away from the term cease-fire. "All I can say at this stage is that Palestinians are committed to stopping violence against Israelis anywhere and Israelis will stop violence against Palestinians anywhere, but the details will be discussed in a committee," he told Knight Ridder.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting the West Bank city of Ramallah Monday, lauded what she called "the most promising moment for progress between Palestinians and Israelis in recent years" and announced the appointment of a senior U.S. coordinator to cement a cease-fire between the sides.

Rice's naming of the official, Army Lt. Gen. William E. Ward, represents a modest increase in U.S. involvement in the Middle East conflict at a moment of diplomatic opportunity.

Ward's job will be to help create conditions for a durable peace, primarily by building up Palestinian security forces that can stop terrorist attacks on Israel.

But Rice said the general would not be involved in political negotiations over a future Palestinian state—leaving that up to the two sides, not the United States, to determine.

The secretary of state ended a two-day visit to Israel and the West Bank with an exceptionally hopeful assessment of the prospects for peace in the aftermath of Abbas' election a month ago, and tentative steps he and Sharon have taken since then.

"I depart the region confident of the success of the meeting tomorrow" in Egypt, Rice said at airport press conference outside Tel Aviv, after meeting Abbas on Monday at Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah.

Rice said Sharon and Abbas have accepted invitations she brought from President Bush to meet him in the United States this spring.

She acknowledged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has repeatedly dashed hopeful moments, but said "there are some fundamental differences now." She cited Sharon's decision for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, calling it "the first time there has been a significant return of territory to the Palestinians since (the) 1967 (war)."

Rice's trip to Ramallah was the first by a U.S. secretary of state since Colin Powell visited in 2002.

It reflects high U.S. hopes that Abbas can end the violence and corruption that existed under Yasser Arafat and exert control over the multiple, overlapping security services that reported to the late Palestinian leader.

Abbas said the Palestinian Authority is declaring a cease-fire, but said it must be matched by Israeli "responsiveness" in halting military operations against Palestinian militants and withdrawing its army from Palestinian cities.

He thanked Bush for his "positive stances" and "enthusiasm" in trying to build an independent Palestinian state.

"We ask continually for help" from the United States in dealing with Israeli settlements in the West Bank; the security fence Israel is building; and threatened appropriations of Palestinian land in Jerusalem, he said.

In another boost for Abbas, Rice announced that the United States is releasing $40 million in "quick impact" assistance to help create jobs and build infrastructure, such as health and water services, in Palestinian territories in the next 90 days.

The funds are in addition to the $350 million in Palestinian aid that Bush announced in his State of the Union address.

U.S. and Israeli officials said that Gen. Ward's principal task would be to oversee reform of Palestinian security services, so they can take control of Palestinian streets. That is certain to be resisted by armed factions, including powerful Hamas, which oppose disarming.

The hope is that, as Palestinian services gain control and combat terrorists, Israel will be willing to withdraw its military.

Ward, who will visit the region in the coming weeks, has been deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe. Rice picked him in part because of work he has done building up local security forces in Bosnia, and his stint at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity.

Ward also may serve as a point of contact between Israeli and Palestinian security personnel.

But Rice and her aides made clear he won't be a peace negotiator—which fits with Israel's preference for direct talks. She has rejected, for now, the appointment of a Middle East peace envoy.

"The United States does not feel that it is necessary to intervene simply for the sake of intervening," she said.

Bush has been extraordinarily supportive of Israel and of Sharon's methods of dealing with Palestinian violence.

Yet during her visit here, Rice delivered a sharp, if polite, message to Sharon that he should do all he can to support Abbas and do nothing to undercut him.

Asked by an Israeli reporter whether she accepted Israel's position that it can postpone the dismantlement of illegal outposts by Jewish settlers in the West Bank until after the Gaza withdrawal, Rice replied:

"That's not our understanding. Our understanding is that the commitments on the dismantlement of outposts stands, that it is important that those commitments be honored."

The Bush administration also opposes Israel's expansion of settlements "to create facts on the ground," she said.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Churgin reported from Jerusalem. Strobel reported from Ramallah, West Bank.)


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

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