JERUSALEM, Feb. 2 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, will meet next week at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, according to a statement by Sharon's office. It will be their first meeting since Abbas was elected on Jan. 9 to replace Yasser Arafat.
Tuesday's summit also will be attended by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah, according to a statement from Mubarak's office carried by Egypt's official MENA news service. The statement said Mubarak proposed the meeting "in view of the delicate situation of the peace process and in order to seize an existing opportunity to achieve substantial progress."
Abbas has been trying to cement a cease-fire deal among such militant Palestinian groups as Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, that would stop attacks against Israelis everywhere. In return, the groups have demanded that Israel release thousands of Palestinian prisoners and stop targeting Palestinian militant leaders for assassination, among other gestures.
Israel has rejected the possibility of making any agreement with the groups but has said it will respond to quiet with quiet. There was a dramatic reduction in violence last week, but several attacks in recent days have tested the fragile accommodation between the two sides, and efforts to achieve a formal cease-fire among the Palestinians seem to have stalled.
The meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh will come on the heels of a visit to Israel and the West Bank on Sunday and Monday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who could play a role in softening or stiffening the Israeli and Palestinian positions.
Among the matters expected to be discussed at the summit are a release of hundreds and potentially thousands of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the lifting of Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints throughout the West Bank and curtailment of Israel's assassination policy. An Israeli decision to turn over security authority in major West Bank cities and towns to Palestinian security forces and coordination of the proposed withdrawal of Israeli troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip this year will also be on the agenda, said an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Israel currently plans to implement the withdrawal unilaterally.
The return of Egypt's ambassador to Tel Aviv will also likely be discussed, as will the deployment of more Egyptian troops along the Gaza border to combat the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
The official said Israel was seeking signs that the Palestinians were doing "whatever has to be done to put the whole peace process back on track, and for us that means dismantling the infrastructure of terror."
The last time Sharon and Abbas met -- in June 2003, at a summit in Jordan attended by President Bush to launch a peace plan called the "road map" -- "there was a major figure who overshadowed it," the official said in an apparent reference to Arafat.
Now, "the whole atmosphere has changed -- there is an elected partner with authority who has been endorsed by the international community and Israel," he said, referring to Abbas. "Sharm el-Sheikh should provide him with a platform to do what is expected of him by the international community, and it should provide Prime Minster Sharon to do what is expected of him. Everyone understands that we need more than a photo op."
Egypt, which borders the Gaza Strip, and Jordan, which borders the West Bank, are the only Arab countries that have signed peace accords with Israel. They have large Palestinian populations and have played key mediating roles over the years not only between the Israelis and Palestinians but also between Palestinian factions and the Palestinian Authority, the entity created by the 1993 Oslo peace accords to govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Both countries have offered to help reform and train the Palestinian security forces that would be called upon to enforce any official cease-fire and that also would have to fill any security vacuum left in the Gaza Strip by Israel's withdrawal this summer.
In a sign of his key role as a go-between, the Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, who carried Mubarak's invitation to Sharon in Jerusalem on Wednesday, earlier in the day met in Cairo with Khaled Mishal, the Syrian-based leader of Hamas.
In an interview with al-Jazeera television, Mishal said a Palestinian cease-fire was "dependent on a summit" and on Israel's willingness to offer concessions.