A rare meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ended bitterly Tuesday after they failed to reach new agreements on issues related to Israel's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and on measures to rein in violence by Palestinian radicals.
Less than two months before the scheduled Israeli evacuation, the leaders clashed over Abbas's efforts to confront such militant groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the release of additional Palestinians from Israeli jails and the reopening of the Gaza airport that Palestinians see as key to the future of the local economy after the pullout. Agreement on those issues could have bolstered a four-month-old truce now severely strained by fresh violence.
Palestinian officials described the nearly two-hour meeting, the first in Jerusalem between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as "difficult." They said it was dominated by Israeli demands that Abbas disarm the militant groups. Israeli officials said Sharon pledged to implement previous agreements, which Israel has yet to fulfill entirely because of what it says are lingering security concerns, but made no new deals.
"None of the issues have progressed up to the expectations of the people," Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, said during a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah after attending the meeting. "What was presented to us was not satisfying at all."
Israeli officials said Sharon spoke angrily at times during the talks. Afterward, he told a hotel industry conference: "We see many good intentions on the part of the Palestinian Authority, however, unfortunately, at the same time there is no concrete preventative action."
The summit at Sharon's official residence marked only the second time he and Abbas have met since Abbas was chosen as head of the Palestinian Authority in January. His election following the death of Yasser Arafat, whom Israeli officials accused of fostering violence, raised hopes for renewal of a peace process that had been stalled since the September 2000 start of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada.
Progress has been halting, however, slowed by violence in the occupied territories that some Israeli officials fear is increasing again after four months of relative calm. Abbas has accused Sharon of weakening him politically by failing to fulfill agreements or ease security measures that complicate the lives of many Palestinians. Sharon, meanwhile, has said fulfilling those agreements depends on Abbas's progress in fighting militant groups that the Israeli leader has said he believes also pose a long-term threat to the Palestinian government.
The meeting Tuesday was meant to serve as an opportunity for the two leaders to better coordinate security and economic preparations for the Israeli withdrawal from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice encouraged the talks in a weekend visit. But recent violence that has left both Israelis and Palestinians dead shadowed the talks.
Sharon opened the meeting by acknowledging that guests usually make the first statement. But he told the Palestinian delegation that he would go first because of his deep concern over the deteriorating security conditions, allowing Abbas to respond after several minutes.
Just minutes before the meeting, the Israeli air force fired a missile into the northern Gaza Strip in an apparent strike against Islamic Jihad fighters. No one was reported injured. Earlier, Israeli forces arrested 52 members of Islamic Jihad in the largest raid on the organization in the West Bank since March, when the group agreed to cease attacks temporarily.
Israeli soldiers have rarely carried out raids against Palestinian fighters since the truce began, and only against those suspected of planning attacks on Israeli targets.
"I think the message was very clear -- that Israel cannot accept the fact that Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the al-Aqsa Brigades have weapons," said Gideon Meir, a senior official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "The Palestinians are back to square one because these terrorists don't see anyone taking away their weapons."
Israeli officials said Sharon warned Abbas that the militant groups were damaging a process that began in February when the two men met at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. At that time, Sharon agreed to return five cities occupied by Israeli forces during the intifada to the control of Palestinian security forces.
Only two have been returned because, Israel says, Palestinian officials have failed to confront militant groups. Israeli officials said Sharon told Abbas on Tuesday that he would hand over Qalqilyah and Bethlehem in two weeks following a security evaluation and study the possibility of allowing more Palestinians to come to work in Israel. He said Ramallah, the Palestinian political capital, would be placed under Palestinian security control if the transfers went smoothly.
Palestinian officials asked Sharon to release more prisoners, presenting him a list of names that included Marwan Barghouti, one of the ruling Fatah movement's most charismatic leaders, who is serving a life sentence for involvement in the killing of five people. Sharon has released 900 Palestinian prisoners as part of the February agreement. But Palestinian officials involved in the meeting said Sharon agreed only to review the new list in the coming weeks.
During her visit, Rice urged both sides to improve coordination of Israel's plan to evacuate 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip in a military operation scheduled to begin Aug. 15. Israel and the Palestinians recently agreed that roughly 1,600 homes inside the Gaza settlements would be razed by Israel. The rubble would be cleared by Palestinians, many of whom are eager for employment in the impoverished region.
But Palestinian officials remain concerned about the reopening of the airport and seaport. Sharon told Abbas on Tuesday that he could begin planning the airport but could not start building it, according to Palestinian and Israeli officials. He also warned that Israeli forces would hit Palestinian militant groups before or during the evacuation unless mortar and rifle attacks ceased. "We will not allow a situation whereby disengagement is carried out under fire," he said.
Qureia later called the Israeli disengagement plan "unilateral."
Researcher Samuel Sockol in Ramallah contributed to this report.