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'Difficult' Mideast talks focus on terrorism

Sharon: 'We can look forward with optimism'

Ariel Sharon, left, and Mahmoud Abbas are holding talks in Jerusalem.


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Palestinian Authority

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met for more than two hours Tuesday in what one Palestinian leader described as "difficult" talks dominated by a discussion of terrorism.

Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qorei described the discussions as "preliminary," but he said the two sides had agreed to stay in contact.

"Overall what was presented to us was not convincing and satisfying to us," Qorei said.

"I said it was a difficult meeting. It was not up to the level of our expectations or the level of the expectations of many Arab and international parties that helped in organizing this meeting with the Israelis."

Qorei said the Palestinians reiterated their commitment to peace with Israel and to the cease-fire negotiated in Egypt.

Ra'anan Gissen, a spokesman for Sharon, said the prime minister told Abbas, "we are willing to move forward" and went over a list of "gestures" that aides had discussed before the meeting.

Gissen said Israel was willing to turn over security control of the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Qalkilya, to allow 26,000 more Palestinian workers to enter Israel for jobs, and to ease transportation of goods through the Gaza border crossings at Rafah and Erez.

Gissen said the list was "subject to the security situation" and that Abbas was told there was "no way we can move forward to peace" if Palestinian terrorist attacks continue.

Gissen said Abbas had requested that Israel release more Palestinian prisoners, particularly those who have served more than 20 years and those who were sick.

He said Israel agreed to consider the request but "there is no way this can pass in the Knesset and in the government if terror continues."

Israel's plan to withdraw settlers and soldiers from Gaza this summer was also discussed, Gissen said.

Following the talks, Sharon addressed a group of hoteliers in Jerusalem. The prime minister said he had made his concern about the security situation clear to Abbas.

"Unfortunately, in the Palestinian Authority, we see many good intentions," Sharon said. "But, in the meanwhile, there have been no actual actions taken to genuinely curtail and foil terrorism."

"We do intend to proceed with the road map and achieve peace and tranquility in our area, but we will not be able to proceed with such a policy unless terrorist action is entirely put an end to."

Sharon said he and Abbas agreed on coordination during the Gaza pullout so that it could occur in peace.

"We will certainly not allow a situation where the disengagement takes place under fire," Sharon said. "We will not stop the disengagement, we will stop the terror. I think we can look forward with optimism."

The prime minister credited his decision to pull out of Gaza and his tough stance on terrorism with having "totally changed the overall situation" and predicted the pullout itself would bring further change.

"This will very much improve the atmosphere -- not only tourism, but other sectors of our economy as well," Sharon said.

The talks between Sharon and Abbas were their first since February, when they announced a cease-fire agreement at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Despite that agreement, the talks took place amid continued Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Palestinians said an Israeli aircraft fired two missiles Tuesday in Gaza, one toward Beit Hanoun and one toward Beit Lahya.

They said one missile hit an empty house and the other landed in an open field. There were no reported injuries.

Israel Defense Forces said they were checking the report.

Earlier in the day, 52 suspected members of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad were arrested throughout the West Bank, Israeli military sources said.

On Monday, Israeli troops said they arrested a woman who apparently planned to carry out a suicide bombing at an Israeli hospital. Also Monday, Palestinians took to the streets to protest a killing by Israeli soldiers of a 17-year-old boy who was attempting to cross a fence into Israel.

Israel Defense Forces said the youth ignored warning shots and orders to stop, but his family said he was not armed and was crossing the fence in hopes of finding work in Israel.

In addition, a 28-year-old Israeli was killed and a 15-year-old was wounded Monday when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on their vehicle as they were driving to work, authorities said.

Islamic Jihad also claimed responsibility for that attack.

On Sunday, Sharon complained in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that "it is clear that Islamic Jihad has -- in practice -- withdrawn from the calm and is initiating, planning and perpetrating terrorist attacks according to orders arriving from Damascus," according to a statement issued by Sharon's office. Sharon warned Rice that "if the situation continues, the Palestinians will again lose an opportunity to move forward." (Full story)

Israel initially planned to pull out of occupied Gaza without consulting the Palestinian Authority, but that plan has changed. Sharon has called for the Palestinians to stop the violence, dismantle terrorist organizations and implement reforms, among other changes.

Gaza airport negotiations

An official involved in Palestinian-Israeli talks about the Gaza withdrawal plan said Tuesday the two sides will announce they have agreed to reopen Yasser Arafat International Airport in Gaza once Israel withdraws this summer.

However, a spokesman for Sharon denied a deal had been finalized.

Airport negotiations were being brokered, the unnamed official said, by James Wolfensohn, an envoy representing the backers of the Mideast road map peace plan -- Russia, the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States.

The airport has been closed for the past five years, and Israeli forces have previously destroyed its runway. Palestinian officials have demanded control over Gaza air space once Israel leaves.

CNN's Guy Raz contributed to this report.

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