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Palestinian, Israeli Leaders Scheduled To Meet

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are scheduled to hold their first meeting in four months, next week.

Senior Palestinian and Israeli officials will meet, Friday, to hold preparatory talks in advance of next week's summit, which could come as early as Tuesday.

The summit announcement was made by Jordan's King Abdullah, who has been working to bring the two leaders together.

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas were supposed to meet, earlier this month, but the talks were called off after Palestinian rocket attacks against targets in southern Israel, prompted Israeli military attacks in Gaza and mass arrests of Palestinian militants in the West Bank.

Friday, negotiators will try to set the agenda for next week's talks, which are expected to focus on Palestinian prisoner releases, the easing of Israeli roadblocks, quotas for Palestinian workers in Israel, and the proposed construction of a port in Gaza. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says next week's summit should not take place if no progress is made in the preparatory talks.

Mr. Erekat says Palestinians need a summit to implement what he describes as "facts on the ground" such as releasing prisoners and moving toward negotiations as stipulated under the internationally-backed Road map peace plan.

Israel's Finance Minister Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio on Thursday that Israel is prepared to make gestures towards the Palestinians to ease daily life.

He says anything that can ease the plight of Palestinians in the territories is something that should be legitimately considered.

However, Mr. Olmert says any prisoner releases will have to be carefully considered.

Mr. Olmert says President Abbas cannot expect the release of Palestinian prisoners who in his words "have blood on their hands."

Israel's finance minister also said his government expects the Palestinian Authority to "dismantle and disarm" what he described as Palestinian terrorist organizations.

He added that Israel will oppose the participation of militant groups such as Hamas in Palestinian parliament elections, scheduled for January 26. There has been growing speculation that the elections will have to be postponed because of increasing violence between Palestinian Authority police forces and Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Meanwhile, Israel's Supreme Court has banned the Israeli military from using civilians as human shields in arrest raids in the Palestinian territories. The court ruled in response to several petitions by human rights activists who were seeking to outlaw the practice, which gained widespread usage during a military offensive in the West Bank in 2002.