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Sharon, Abbas fail to resolve key Gaza issues

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas failed Tuesday to resolve key issues on Israel’s planned Gaza withdrawal, and the Palestinian chief said he received no positive answers in a “difficult” meeting – their first since they agreed to a truce four months ago.

With the Gaza pullout to begin in less than two months, the summit had been expected to kick off a determined effort by the two sides to work together to ensure the pullout proceeds smoothly and peacefully.

But a new wave of Palestinian attacks and Israel’s overnight arrest of dozens of militants dampened hopes. And the frosty atmosphere at the meeting itself raised doubts over whether the leaders can work together on the withdrawal, much less on further peace moves.

The Palestinians expressed frustration after the more than two-hour session at Sharon’s official residence in Jerusalem, the first time top Palestinian and Israeli leaders have met in the city. The Palestinians have long claimed that east Jerusalem should be their capital.

“This was a difficult meeting, and did not live up to our expectations,” Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told reporters. “In all the basic issues for which we were expecting positive responses, there were none.”

The Palestinians wanted concrete results announced at the summit, such as Israel releasing more prisoners and also easing roadblocks and other restrictions that have crippled life in the West Bank. Abbas needs such achievements to bolster his standing among his people.

Israeli officials said there was some progress. In a speech after the meeting, Sharon said he and Abbas “agreed during the meeting on full coordination of our exit from Gaza.” He did not offer details.

Israel also said Sharon offered to return control of two more West Bank towns to the Palestinian Authority and would consider freeing more prisoners if the Palestinians took steps to end violence.

The Palestinians were unmoved. Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian minister in charge of coordinating Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, said bitterly: “There was nothing, nothing.”

Sharon and Abbas last met Feb. 8 in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, where they agreed to a cease-fire that was hailed as an end to more than four years of conflict.

Violence plummeted then, but it has flared recently. Over the weekend, Islamic Jihad began a series of attacks that killed two Israelis. In response, Israeli forces swept through the West Bank early Tuesday, arresting 52 suspected Islamic Jihad members in the first large crackdown since the truce.