- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

TEL AVIV — A summit between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem yesterday yielded no dramatic breakthroughs, but the Israeli prime minister offered to hand over control of two West Bank towns and reopen a Gaza airfield if Palestinians could keep a lid on militant attacks.

In a tense meeting lasting more than two hours and including the leaders’ deputies, the sides focused on coordination of Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank later this year and gestures aimed at jump-starting the stalled U.S.-backed road map peace plan.

It was the first meeting between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas since a February summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh buoyed hope for a resumption of peace talks after almost five years of violence. A several-months calm in the fighting and the initial good will has been eroded in recent weeks amid a spate of attacks by Palestinian militants and an offensive by the Israeli army. Palestinians complained the Israeli offers did not meet their expectations.

“Overall, what was presented to us was not convincing, was not satisfying at all,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in a press conference carried on CNN. “It was a difficult meeting.”

Mr. Sharon offered to transfer security authority in Bethlehem and Qalqilya in two weeks. The towns were originally part of a package of five cities that Israel promised to the Palestinians at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference. Only two were relinquished.

The Israeli prime minister also offered entry permits for 26,000 Palestinian laborers and 15,000 Palestinian merchants, said a spokesman. But the Israeli gestures were conditioned on Palestinian progress on reining in militants.

“We have the desire to move forward together with the Palestinians, via the road map, and to attain actual security and tranquility in our region,” said Mr. Sharon in a speech given after the summit, “but such political advancement will not be implemented without real cessation of terror.”

Seated on opposite sides of a long table looking out onto a courtyard in the prime minister’s residence, the participants looked businesslike and anxious. The atmosphere contrasted with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s weekend visit, during which she gave a positive outlook on efforts to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal and announced an agreement to demolish the settlers’ houses.

Israeli-Palestinian collaboration on a host of security and economic questions is considered crucial for the Israeli withdrawal to provide a springboard for talks rather than stirring up more instability. Israel has warned it will not tolerate any Palestinian fire during the withdrawal. The pullout has also raised the question about whether Gaza will have open borders afterward.

Just hours before the meeting, Israel’s army arrested 52 Islamic Jihad militants throughout the West Bank, ending a moratorium on roundups adopted in order to maintain calm with the Palestinians.

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