Expectations low for Sharon-Abbas summit

JERUSALEM, Oct. 9 (JTA) — Neither Israelis nor Palestinians seem to be particularly excited about their latest peace summit. While political sources said the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is still expected to take place Tuesday, a last-minute cancellation would surprise no one. “Keeping up contacts is important, but one does not go in without proper preparation,” Sharon told his Cabinet on Sunday. Officials on both sides say the summit could be an important way of building on Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which was completed last month. But with Abbas to meet President Bush in Washington on Oct. 20, the main aim for both leaders appears to be garnering foreign kudos, rather than making real bilateral progress. “Neither side has great expectations of the summit and that is why the preparations for that meeting have been low profile and without enthusiasm,” wrote Yediot Achronot commentator Roni Shaked. “The Sharon-Abu Mazen meeting is geared solely to pleasing U.S. President Bush and Jordan’s King Abdullah.” Abdullah, who is, as always, focused on preventing Palestinian unrest from spilling over his borders, announced last week that Sharon and Abbas had agreed to meet at his behest. A summit had originally been set for Oct. 2, but was postponed after Israel answered rocket salvoes by Hamas terrorists in Gaza with air and artillery strikes. The surge in violence underscored Israel’s longstanding demand that Abbas crack down on Palestinian terror groups as required by the U.S.-led “road map” for peace. But despite intermittent clashes between his police and Hamas gunmen in Gaza, Abbas has made clear that a crackdown is not in the works. On Saturday, rival Palestinian factions pledged to end their infighting — a sign Abbas will continue to pursue what he calls an internal consensus on peace talks with Israel. The Palestinian Authority has responded to Israel’s pressure by noting that it has continued building up West Bank settlements despite the road map’s call for a halt to such construction. Yet Bush has said that Israel can expect to keep West Bank settlement blocs under a final peace deal with the Palestinians, a statement Sharon has taken to mean tacit approval for their expansion. So any concessions made at the Tuesday summit are likely to be small and symbolic — further releases by Israel of Palestinian security prisoners, perhaps, or a pledge by Abbas to step up his efforts to get Hamas et al to shelve their arms.

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