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Palestinians, Israelis Prepare for Aqaba Summit - 2003-06-03


Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, meet Wednesday with President Bush in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba to try to overcome final hurdles in implementing the so-called road map for peace in the region.

President Bush arrives in Aqaba straight from a summit meeting with Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in a bid to ensure their support for the peace plan. During a one-day summit in Aqaba, he will try to get Israel and the Palestinians to launch the first phase. Phase One of the road map includes an end to violence by both sides and recognition by the Palestinians of Israel's right to exist in peace and security in return for Israel's recognition of the Palestinians' right to an independent, viable and sovereign state. Phase One also calls for a freeze on all Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the dismantling of illegal settlement outposts.

Some initial steps have been taken. Prime Minister Abbas has renounced violence and vowed to disarm militant groups. Israel has begun to ease some travel and work restrictions on Palestinians and has released some prisoners. Each side says the other must do more.

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, Israel's Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said the Palestinians must show a firm commitment to stop terrorism.

"It is very important that the Palestinians announce that they come to a decision to put an end to terrorism, violence and incitement … that the Palestinians will tell their own people the time has come to put an end to violence in the region," he said.

Prime Minister Abbas has begun talks with militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to get them to agree to a truce. A Palestinian official, Samir Rantisi, who is an adviser to the minister for cabinet affairs, says Palestinians will bring a commitment to end violence to Aqaba.

"We are willing to present a truce and a pledge from the militant organizations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad to stop all attacks against Israelis, provided the Israeli army and government also abide by the rule of not attacking, assassinating or demolishing homes," Mr. Rantisi said.

Israel insists Prime Minister Abbas must do more than get militant groups to pledge to stop attacks. It wants the Palestinian government to disarm, arrest and bring to justice militants who've been planning or carrying out attacks against Israel.

On the issue of mutual recognition, Prime Minister Sharon has thus far only said he would enter into negotiations with the Palestinians that might eventually lead to a Palestinian state. Officials here say he is expected to accept the principle of a Palestinian state.

Foreign Minister Shalom says Israel is expecting formal recognition from the Palestinians.

"It is very important that the existence of Israel as a Jewish state would be mentioned," he said.

Samir Rantisi says the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist, but he says it's up to Israelis to define the character of their state as Jewish or otherwise.

"We recognize Israel as a democratic state, as a neighboring state, which we want to live side by side with in peace and security," he explained. "We recognize their full right to secure borders. But it is more than demanding to ask us to recognize and define the character of the state."

The issue of Jewish settlements is expected to remain a major hurdle. Prime Minister Sharon has been a longtime proponent of settlements. He has now told his cabinet that some illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip may have to be dismantled and he has said that giving up some settlements may be among the painful concessions Israel may have to make during peace negotiations.

President Bush has already acknowledged that peace in the Middle East will be a long and difficult process. He has also said he would commit as much time as necessary to achieve it. The goal of the summit in Aqaba is to make a start.

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