Sharon, Abbas to Meet at Summit That Could Lead to Real Breakthrough

Call it the “Return of the ‘Road Map.’ ” Almost two years after Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas stood on the shore of the Red Sea and launched the U.S.-led peace plan, the two leaders will meet again.

With Yasser Arafat now dead and Abbas already making his mark as the new Palestinian Authority president, next Tuesday’s summit in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh could herald real progress.

Regional hopes for a breakthrough are running high.

The meeting will be hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, attended by Jordan’s King Abdullah and blessed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is due in the region next week on her first Middle East tour in her new position.

Israeli political sources said that at the summit Sharon will unveil a series of concessions to the Palestinian Authority, including Israeli troop withdrawals from West Bank cities, the release of hundreds of security prisoners and a de facto amnesty for terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip if they agree to disarm.

“This is our way of boosting Abu Mazen, who has done a lot to help us prepare the disengagement plan,” a Sharon confidant said, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. He was referring to a calming of Palestinian attacks in the Gaza Strip.

Israel has presented its Gaza withdrawal plan as a way back into the road map, which has been tattered by violence. Israeli officials envision that Gaza and West Bank areas from which Israeli soldiers and settlers will withdraw will become a provisional Palestinian state where Abbas will have to prove his competency.

Though it has declined to crack down on terrorists, despite its road map obligation to do so, the Palestinian Authority insists the plan guarantees it full statehood in all of the West Bank and Gaza, and wants this recognized and implemented forthwith.

“We hope that this meeting, backed by Arab states, will make Israel fall in line” and “kick-start final-status talks,” P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei told reporters.

The demands have stirred concern in the Israeli political opposition, which recalled a similar asymmetry of expectations when the Oslo interim peace accords were signed in 1993.

“Again we will see a gala event, with the Palestinian chief getting everything, with little in return,” Effi Eitam of the National Union bloc told Israel Radio, referring to reports that Israel already has agreed to curtail army missions to kill or capture terrorists if they lay down their arms.

Egypt has been helping the indirect rapprochement by hosting talks in Cairo with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, aimed at getting the terrorist groups to abandon violence in Gaza. Egyptian security forces also are expected to help their Palestinian counterparts prevent a power vacuum in the strip when Israel withdraws.

But Israeli suspicions of Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with the Jewish state, linger.

Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, accused Cairo of playing a double game.

“Before the Egyptians offer help in calming the region, they should put an end to the smuggling of weapons from Sinai to the terrorists,” Steinitz said, referring to Gazans who bring in munitions through tunnels from Egypt. “It is a matter of practicing what you preach.”

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