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In Second Meeting with Abbas, Sharon Offers a Troop Pullback

May 30, 2003
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Diplomatic momentum is building ahead of a planned Israeli-Palestinian summit with President Bush next week.

Late Thursday, following talks between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, Israel announced a number of confidence-building measures it would take.

Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian Authority counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, met for three hours Thursday night at Sharon’s office in Jerusalem. It was their second meeting in as many weeks.

Both sides were interested in a positive outcome that would help lay the groundwork for the June 4 summit in Jordan with President Bush to discuss the “road map” peace plan.

A statement issued after the talks by Sharon’s office said the discussions were held in a “positive atmosphere.”

The statement said Sharon would order the Israeli army to redeploy from the centers of Palestinian cities and reduce its troop presence, but didn’t mention a timetable.

At the meeting, Sharon reportedly reiterated his proposal for a transfer of security control to the Palestinians wherever the army withdraws.

However, if the Palestinians don’t take action to stop real threats to Israeli lives, the army will not hesitate to act, the statement said.

Abbas reportedly said he preferred a security handover in Gaza first, as he believed that there would be a better chance of a successful Palestinian resumption of security control in the Gaza Strip, where its security forces are largely intact.

“If there is a readiness by Israel to stop its military actions against us and start freeing political prisoners, I think we are ready to guarantee a total cessation of violence,” P.A. Foreign Minister Nabil Sha’ath told Israel’s Channel One television station Thursday night, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Sharon also repeated Israel’s demand that the Palestinians take concrete measures to halt terrorist attacks, arrest terrorists, confiscate illegal weapons and cease anti-Israel incitement.

“Only with determined action” and “a halt to terrorism will it be possible to reach peace,” Sharon was quoted as saying.

The statement went on to list a number of measures Sharon was prepared to take to ease restrictions on the Palestinian population, including lifting closures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, allowing more Palestinians to work in Israel and increasing the amount of Palestinian tax revenues that Israel transfers to the Palestinian Authority each month.

In response to a demand for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, Sharon promised to review prisoner lists.

The Palestinians also reportedly were seeking an Israeli declaration of the Palestinians’ right to a state, as called for in the road map. Sharon in the meeting referred to President Bush’s speech of June 24, 2002, which spoke of the creation of a provisional Palestinian state as part of the negotiating process, Israel Radio reported.

Thursday’s meeting took place against the backdrop of a disagreement over Abbas’ efforts to negotiate a deal with Palestinian terrorist groups to cease, at least temporarily, their attacks against Israel.

In an interview in the daily Yediot Achronot on Thursday, Abbas voiced optimism that he would be able to reach a cease-fire agreement with Hamas by next week that would apply to attacks both inside Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials say a cease-fire is not enough, fearing it merely will give the groups time to rearm, and demand a full dismantling of the terrorist groups and their infrastructure.

Thursday’s meeting got underway at 9 p.m. following conflicting reports earlier in the day over whether it would take place at all. Palestinian sources said Israel was interested in a postponement, but Sharon’s office issued a statement clarifying that the talks were to be held as scheduled.

In addition to Abbas, Sha’ath and the P.A. security affairs minister, Mohammed Dahlan, took part in the meeting.

A senior U.S. envoy, William Burns, arrived in Cairo on Thursday to prepare for next week’s summit meetings, starting with a U.S.-Arab summit meeting slated for June 3 in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

Bush will meet with Sharon and Abbas the following day in Aqaba.

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