JERUSALEM, AP – The first Palestinian-Israeli summit in four months failed to propel peace prospects forward or solidify a shaky truce, leaving main issues unresolved and both sides disappointed.
The meeting Tuesday started with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon scolding Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for an upsurge in Palestinian violence. The chilly atmosphere never warmed.
The summit was supposed to kick off an effort to work together to ensure Israel”s withdrawal from Gaza this summer proceeds smoothly and peacefully. But the frosty meeting itself raised doubts as to whether the leaders can work together on the pullout, much less on further peace moves.
Palestinian officials said the meeting left them frustrated at the lack of progress.
"This was a difficult meeting, and did not live up to our expectations," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told reporters. "In all the basic issues for which we were expecting positive responses, there were none."
Palestinians were hoping for concrete results, like release of more prisoners and easing of Israel”s West Bank security restrictions, like roadblocks, that have crippled life there through more than four years of conflict. Abbas needs such achievements to bolster his standing among his people.
In a speech after the summit, Sharon said he and Abbas "agreed during the meeting on full coordination of our exit from Gaza," but did not offer details.
Israeli officials said Sharon also offered to hand control over two more West Bank towns to the Palestinians and would consider releasing more prisoners if the Palestinians take steps to end violence.
Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian minister in charge of coordinating Israel”s Gaza withdrawal, said bitterly: "There was nothing, nothing."
Sharon and Abbas last met Feb. 8 in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, where they agreed to a cease-fire that was hailed as an end to more than four years of conflict.
Violence plummeted in the wake of the truce, but flared over the weekend, when Islamic Jihad began carrying out a series of attacks that killed two Israelis. In response, Israeli forces swept through the West Bank early Tuesday, arresting 52 suspected Islamic Jihad militants in the first large crackdown since the truce.
"When we were in Sharm el-Sheik you said that you would exert all efforts to stop the terror and begin to remove the infrastructure of terror, but the action never happened," Sharon said in comments caught on microphone at the start of the meeting.
In a sign of the tense atmosphere at the meeting at Sharon”s official Jerusalem residence, the two leaders did not hold a joint news conference after the meeting, and Abbas did not address the media on his own, as scheduled, sending Qureia instead.
After the meeting, Israel Radio reported that Sharon gave Abbas permission to begin preparations for reopening Gaza”s airport and harbor. The opening of the ports is seen as key to reducing Gaza”s isolation once Israel pulls out of the coastal strip this summer.
Sharon also told Abbas that Israel would hand over the West Bank towns of Qalqiliya and Bethlehem to Palestinian control in two weeks, if the Palestinians take steps to stop attacks, Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin told The Associated Press. Israel also would consider releasing additional prisoners and allowing Palestinians deported for involvement in violence to return, Israeli officials said.
Israel was to hand over five towns as part of the truce, but it froze the process after the first two, charging that the Palestinians had not disarmed militants in the areas under their control.
Israel has demanded Abbas crack down on the militants, but Abbas has shied away from armed confrontation, preferring to co-opt them.
Gissin said Sharon offered more gestures in exchange for quiet, including allowing 26,000 more Palestinian laborers and 13,400 more merchants to work in Israel.
"They must also understand that there is a limit to how much Israel can make concessions," Gissin said. Israel "will make concessions, but it cannot make any concession whatsoever when it comes to the security of the state of Israel."
As the meeting opened, an Israeli aircraft fired two missiles at an abandoned structure in the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said. The army declined to comment, but said Palestinian mortar and rocket fire had come from the area earlier in the day.