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Abbas, Sharon pledge peace

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to meet again.
SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas pledged Tuesday to end four years of fighting between their peoples and promised to meet again to resolve outstanding issues that have brought Israelis and Palestinians into conflict repeatedly.
The sweeping declarations by each leader to end attacks fell short of a formal truce, and the summit at this Red Sea resort produced no joint statement or signed document. Still, the two said their pledges offered Israelis and Palestinians a real chance at peace and the fact that they met at all opened the possibility -- however remote or difficult -- that serious negotiations could follow.
"We must not let the new spirit, which grants our peoples hope, pass us by and leave us empty-handed," Sharon said in his closing statement.
Said Abbas: "This is a new opportunity for peace. Let's pledge to protect it."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking in Paris, said success in the peace effort wasn't assured but that the United States would support it. "This is the best chance for peace that we are likely to see for some years to come; and we are acting to help Israelis and Palestinians seize this chance," she said. "President Bush is committed. I am personally committed. We must all be committed to seizing this chance."
The two leaders' pledges to halt attacks were explicit.
"We have agreed on halting all violent actions against Palestinians and Israelis wherever they are," Abbas said. Sharon made a similar pledge, agreeing to "cease all its military activity against all Palestinians everywhere," easing his government's long-standing demand that a Palestinian cease-fire precede a halt in Israeli military action.
Sharon invited Abbas to visit him at his ranch in southern Israel, and the Palestinian leader accepted. That meeting between the leaders could be followed with one in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Despite the promise of peace, a somber atmosphere pervaded the meeting, at which the two leaders read their closing statements without expression. Not participating in the summit but important players in any possible peace were the Islamic militant groups -- including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades -- that are principally responsible for the many attacks on Israelis over the past four years, and over which Abbas has little control.
Israel said it would abide by its commitments to halt military action against Palestinians only if all attacks against Israelis ceased.
Hamas opposition
Even before Sharon and Abbas left the conference hall for their separate, hour-long flights home, Hamas declared that it wasn't bound by the leaders' mutual pledges.
The first reported violation of Abbas' peace pledge came after nightfall, when Palestinians shot at a car near a Jewish settlement on the West Bank and threw firebombs at soldiers who came to investigate. No one was injured in the attack, for which the al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant offshoot of Abbas' Fatah political movement, claimed responsibility.
"This summit didn't meet the aspirations of our people," said Sami Abu Zohri, a Hamas spokesman.
Palestinian officials said Abbas soon would fly to Damascus, Syria, to meet with expatriate leaders of the militant groups to gain their cooperation in ending attacks on Israel. An earlier round of negotiations in the Gaza Strip led by Abbas has resulted in a sharp reduction in Palestinian attacks on Israel in recent weeks. Abbas also has deployed Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip in an effort to halt attacks.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Abbas would use the gestures Israel made Tuesday to try to formalize the arrangement with militant groups. Shaath said Israel would release 500 Palestinian prisoners immediately, with another 400 to be released later.
"We will involve our Palestinian brothers and consolidate the commitment to the cease-fire and to the full implementation of the steps leading to peace," he said. He was vague about what the Palestinian Authority would do if the militant groups didn't cooperate.
Much work ahead
The prospect of failure appeared to weigh heavily on the leaders at the conclusion of Tuesday's summit, which included the host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Besides the pledges to end the fighting, Sharon and Abbas discussed the handover of five West Bank cities to Palestinian control within the next three weeks, members of their delegation said. Both also reaffirmed their commitment to Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli soldiers and 7,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip beginning this summer.
But they remained divided on key issues such as resuming formal peace talks, the release of more Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the construction of Israel's controversial separation barrier in the West Bank and the ban on Palestinians traveling to Jerusalem, Abbas said after their meeting.
"We must move forward, cautiously," said Sharon, who failed to persuade Abbas to disarm and disband Palestinian militant groups. "Only actions and not words, this is the only way to attain the vision of two states living side-by-side in peace and tranquility."
The tentative results of the summit didn't surprise observers.
"In a fragile situation like this you can't hope for more," said Abdel Moneim Said, the director of the al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "It could be a beginning, and it could be a false hope."