SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared yesterday that their people would stop all military and violent attacks against each other, pledging to break a four-year cycle of bloodshed and get peace talks back on track.

With their national flags whipping in the wind, Sharon and Abbas met face-to-face at a Mideast summit, smiling broadly as they leaned across a long white table to shake hands. In one sign the talks went well, Egypt and Jordan announced afterward that they would return their ambassadors to Israel after a four-year absence, and the Israeli foreign minister said other Arab countries might follow.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas immediately called the deal into question, saying it would not be bound by the cease-fire declarations and was waiting to see what Israel would do next.

Israel will hand over control of five West Bank towns to the Palestinians within three weeks and immediately release 500 Palestinian prisoners.

Those agreements, and the sight of Abbas and Sharon shaking hands, were the clearest signs yet of momentum in the peace process after Yasser Arafat’s death in November and Abbas’s election to succeed him in January.

One Israeli official, Gideon Meir, said “there was a great atmosphere in the talks … smiles and joking.”

An invitation to both sides to meet separately with President Bush at the White House this spring added another round of momentum on the summit’s eve.

“We have agreed on halting all violent actions against Palestinians and Israelis wherever they are,” Abbas declared in a statement made after the meetings, as he, Sharon, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II sat around a round table.

Sharon made a similar pledge.

“Today, in my meeting with chairman Abbas, we agreed that all Palestinians will stop all acts of violence against all Israelis everywhere, and, at the same time, Israel will cease all its military activity against all Palestinians everywhere,” he said.

Abbas said he expected the cease-fire pledges to pave the way for resumption of talks on so-called “final status” issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem’s status, all within the context of the Mideast “road map” to peace. Sharon said he also expected the deal yesterday to set the stage for the implementation of the “road map.”

Sharon also invited Abbas to visit him at his ranch in southern Israel and Abbas accepted, Meir said. Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said the meeting would take place soon.

Sharon said he would like the next meeting between the two leaders to be in the West Bank town of Ramallah, according to an adviser, Raanan Gissin.

The White House commended the leaders on their commitment.

“The cessation of violence and terrorism are important steps on the path to ending terrorism in the region and dismantling the terrorists’ infrastructure,” spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters on Air Force One as Bush flew to a speech in Detroit. “The United States will continue doing its part to help the parties move forward.”

As part of the handover of five West Bank towns, Israeli and Palestinian security commanders are to meet tomorrow to prepare the handover of Jericho, the first West Bank town in the list of five, said Palestinian negotiator Hassan Abu Libdeh.

After the immediate release of 500 Palestinian prisoners, another 400 will be released at a later stage, he said.

Asked whether Hamas would continue its attacks against Israel after the summit, the group’s representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, replied: “Our decision depends on the achievement of a substantial change (in Israel’s position) to meet Palestinian demands and conditions.”

Hamdan said for a truce to be successful, Israel must release Palestinian prisoners and make a clear commitment to “halt all kinds of aggression against the Palestinian people.”

He contended those conditions were not met at the summit.

In Jerusalem, a key parliamentary committee narrowly approved a bill that would allow Sharon to carry out his planned pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in the summer. The vote passed 10-9 on a subject that has split Sharon’s party and angered his main constituency.

Abbas said it was time for the Palestinian people to regain their freedom.

“A new opportunity for peace is born today in the city of peace. Let’s pledge to protect it,” Abbas said, referring to the nickname of Sharm el-Sheik earned through past peace summits.

And Sharon, in what he said was a direct address to the Palestinian people, said: “I assure you that we have a genuine intention to respect your rights to live independently and in dignity. I have already said that Israel has no desire to continue to govern over you and control your fate.”

Mubarak, who summoned the two leaders and has been a key mediator, said there also was fresh hope for Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations, which have been frozen since 2000.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Egypt and Jordan will return their ambassadors to Israel after a four-year absence, possibly within days. Egypt and Jordan lowered their diplomatic representation in Israel in late 2000 to protest what they saw as Israel’s excessive use of force against Palestinians in the fighting that began in September that year.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel’s Channel Two TV that the summit “could lead to a breakthrough with many other Arab countries, which could send ambassadors here” to restore diplomatic relations.

“We are in contact with additional Arab nations in the Persian Gulf and North Africa about opening diplomatic missions in Israel,” he said.

Gissin said Israel would stop its controversial targeted killing operations against wanted Palestinians, as long as the Palestinians kept militants under control.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Rome that there seems to be a will for peace in the Middle East, and warned the Palestinians to move resolutely to control violence against Israel by its own people.

After the summit, Britain and Germany quickly pledged to do all they could to help both sides.

In London, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw noted there had been “rather too many false dawns” in the long-running conflict. German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer added from Berlin that “the renewed U.S. engagement is of central significance” to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sharon’s visit angered some Egyptians, and university students led by Islamic student groups demonstrated peacefully on their campuses Monday and yesterday. At Cairo University, about 350 students burned Israeli and American flags and shouted against Sharon. One banner read: “Receiving Sharon is a shame on Egypt.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the agreement also included the establishment of joint committees.

 

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