Middle East summit planned

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- At Egypt's initiative, Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership agreed yesterday to join a regional summit aimed at reviving peace talks and isolating Hamas.

The four-way meeting, also including Jordan, will take place Monday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, officials said. It will be the first encounter between Israeli and Palestinian leaders since Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last week left only the West Bank in the control of the more moderate Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Sensing that the realignment has freed Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to make concessions, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited them to talk.

Jordanian officials said King Abdullah II would join the meeting in a show of support for Abbas. Jordan and Egypt are the only Arab states that recognize Israel, and their leaders fear that Hamas' control of Gaza will inspire homegrown Islamic groups that oppose their secular regimes.

Spokeswoman Miri Eisen said Olmert agreed to meet with Abbas "to talk about mutual cooperation and ways to go forward on the Israeli-Palestinian track."

The peace process stalled after the collapse of the Camp David talks in July 2000 and the start of a Palestinian uprising a few months later. Sporadic talks between Abbas and Olmert have yielded little progress despite prodding by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

At Rice's urging, Olmert agreed in March to biweekly talks with Abbas that would discuss confidence-building measures and possibly the outlines of a future Palestinian state. But Abbas' decision to join with Hamas in a power-sharing government alienated the Israeli leader, and the two met just once after that, in April.

Abbas fired the Hamas-led government last week after the Gaza takeover and named an emergency Cabinet, which effectively rules only the West Bank. He has promised to disarm militias of Hamas and his secular Fatah movement, which both fight against Israel.

Israeli officials have welcomed Abbas' moves. But they said Olmert would tell Abbas that he must show progress in ridding the West Bank of armed militants before the two sides can address core disagreements, including the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees and Israeli construction of West Bank settlements.

Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel's parliament from the right-wing Likud party, said Olmert should use the summit to demand a halt of arms smuggling through Egypt to Hamas militants in Gaza.

Olmert is ready to make some concessions. He said he would propose to his Cabinet that it release to Abbas some of the $550 million in tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians but has withheld since Hamas came to power in an election last year.

Aides to Abbas said he would ask Israel to remove security checkpoints that disrupt daily life and trade in the West Bank. He is also expected to argue that unless Olmert soon broaches the subject of Palestinian statehood, Hamas, which calls for destroying the Jewish state, will gain followers in the West Bank.

"The most important thing to realize is that time is of the essence," said Saeb Erekat, a senior adviser to Abbas. "We need to deliver the end of occupation, a Palestinian state. If we don't have hope, Hamas will export despair to the people."

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Fawzi Barhoum, said the summit "will not bring any benefit to the Palestinians or the world."

Protesters in Gaza City burned Abbas' effigy, denouncing him as puppet of the United States, which lifted an aid embargo against the West Bank this week while maintaining it in Gaza.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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