New York Times
June 22, 2005
JERUSALEM, June 21 - Against the backdrop of persistent violence, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, met Tuesday, but were unable to agree on concrete steps for strengthening a truce that is at risk of unraveling.
The talks were the first between the two since they announced a truce in February, and it was the first time the top Israeli and Palestinian leaders have met in Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.
But unlike the February meeting in Egypt, which raised hopes that four years of violence might be winding down, much of Tuesday's two-hour session at Mr. Sharon's official residence appeared to be devoted to airing unresolved grievances.
"It was a difficult meeting and was not up to the level of our expectations," Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian prime minister, said at a news conference afterward in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "Over all, what was presented to us was not satisfying at all."
Mr. Sharon opened the session with long remarks on the need for the Palestinians to prevent attacks against Israel.
"A situation in which the terror organizations operate and are not threatened will not continue," he told the Palestinians, according to the Israeli Channel Two television. "You're forcing me to act for want of another choice."
Later on, the Israeli side proposed several limited steps it would be willing to take if the violence subsided.
Israel said it would hand over two more West Bank towns, Bethlehem and Qalqilya, to Palestinian control. In addition, more Palestinian workers would be allowed into Israel, and restrictions on the movement of Palestinian people and goods could be eased, the Israel radio reported.
Israel has made similar pledges in the past, but it has refrained from fully carrying out the measures, citing continuing violence. In February, Israel said it would hand over five West Bank cities, but only two have been turned over. Israeli forces are still in the area of Bethlehem and Qalqilya, as well as Ramallah, the fifth city on the original list.
The two sides also discussed Israel's planned withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, set for August. But they were vague on what progress, if any, had been made.
Mr. Sharon said for many months that the Israeli evacuation was a unilateral move, but the sides have been discussing possible coordination. So far, the only substantive agreement is that the approximately 1,600 homes of the Israeli settlers will be demolished by the Israeli military after the settlers leave.
The Palestinians said they raised several Gaza issues on Tuesday, including the need to develop a seaport, to reopen their airport and gain at least some control over the crossing points in and out of Gaza.
Mr. Sharon said the Palestinians could begin making preparations for the port and the airport, but Israel has said it will not permit them to operate unless there is calm.
The meeting began only hours after the Israeli military staged a large arrest sweep overnight in the West Bank, seizing more than 50 Palestinians linked to Islamic Jihad. About half the arrests were in Hebron, a stronghold of the group.
Islamic Jihad became the target after its gunmen carried out three shootings in the previous three days, killing two Israelis. The group said it was not abandoning the truce, but was responding to recent arrests of group members.