- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Four years and thousands of lives after the failure of a summit between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, their successors will sit down here today after an announcement yesterday that the two will declare a formal truce, followed by substantive negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and newly inaugurated Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are expected to deliver mutual declarations on a truce.

The gathering will reverberate throughout the Middle East because Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is hosting and Jordan’s King Abdullah will attend.

The United States will be noticeably absent, but the willingness of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to face each other without their usual mediators is being viewed as an achievement.

“There’s a sense of hope that things could get back on track,” said Gilead Sher, the chief Israeli negotiator under Mr. Barak. “The mere fact that the two leaders of the Palestinian people and the state of Israel are meeting is refreshing.”

At the same time, the declaration of a cease-fire is only the first of many confidence-building measures before the sides can start discussing a permanent peace settlement.

The four-way parley is expected to be strong on symbolism, signaling the aspirations of both sides to turn a new page after four years of daily bloodshed.

But the meeting could be thin on substantive negotiations, as about two hours have been allotted for talks before the summit’s concluding ceremony.

Thorny issues, such as the release of Palestinian prisoners and immunity for militant fugitives, have been delayed until after the summit.

“They’ve agreed to leave the difficult problems for later,” said Oded Granot, an Arab affairs commentator for Israel’s public television news show.

Although the summit participants will proclaim a cease-fire, a full cessation of hostilities depends on talks between Mr. Abbas and Palestinian militant factions such as Hamas, scheduled to be held in Cairo after the summit.

“We need to reach agreements at Sharm el Sheik that will help the internal Palestinian dialogue. I don’t see Hamas and Islamic Jihad deciding to disarm themselves,” said Kadoura Fares, a Palestinian Cabinet member. Whether the Palestinian uprising is declared at an end “depends on the results” of the summit.

In June 2003, Mr. Sharon met Mr. Abbas — at the time the Palestinian prime minister under Yasser Arafat — at a summit over which President Bush presided in Aqaba, Jordan, to inaugurate the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. The subsequent cease-fire collapsed within three months.

The talks bear the imprint of the United States, even if Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not attend, said Scott Lasensky, a senior researcher at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

“We may not be at the table, but we are in everybody’s minds,” Mr. Lasensky said. “Despite the photos at Sharm el Sheik, the sides are essentially negotiating through the U.S.”

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