The two sides announced Wednesday that they had accepted an invitation from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to meet at the Red Sea resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh. Jordan’s King Abdullah is also expected to attend the meetings.
The agreement to hold peace talks comes after Abbas’ Jan. 9 victory in an historic Palestinian presidential election and the establishment of a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian militants.
Abbas said last week he had convinced militant groups to temporarily halt attacks against Israeli civilians and military targets as long as Israel agreed to curtail military action in Palestinian areas. He also urged Israel to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners and to stop hunting and assassinating militant leaders.
Sharon will reportedly convene a cabinet meeting to discuss implementing a temporary halt on actions against wanted Palestinian militant leaders as a way to bolster Abbas’ position prior to the summit.
“We are talking not about granting clemency, but a freeze. A freeze means that everything is temporary,” Israeli defense official Amos Gilad told Israel’s Army Radio. “That is, if they resume terror, and the murders and attacks continue, then we will resume vigorous action. Ultimately you need a reliable partner, otherwise there will be no solution.”
Newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has embarked on a trip to Europe and the Middle East, is scheduled to meet with Abbas and Sharon separately prior to the summit in Egypt. It is unclear whether Rice will also travel to Egypt for the peace talks.
Jordan and Egypt are the only Arab nations that have formal peace agreements with Israel and have often served as intermediaries between the Israeli government and the Palestinians.
However, until now Mubarak has been reluctant to meet with the hard-line Sharon. Israeli news reports said the invitation was historic.
Egypt has also reportedly taken a role in curbing attacks by Palestinian militants. According to news reports the head of Egypt’s intelligence service has summoned militant leaders to Cairo in an effort to convince them to halt attacks on Israelis.
Sharon and Abbas last met in June 2003 at a summit in Jordan hosted by King Abdullah and U.S. President George W. Bush. Abbas was then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s prime minister. The two sides agreed then to launch the road map to peace, but the plan was dashed by an outbreak of violence.