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Israeli, Palestinian leaders to meet soon
( 2003-11-18 15:34) (AP)

Two Israelis were killed in a shooting attack outside Jerusalem on Tuesday, a day after Israel's prime minister said he will meet soon with his Palestinian counterpart in a move that could give a boost to the frozen Mideast peace process.

Unidentified assailants fired shots from a vehicle as it passed an army checkpoint where the two Israelis were standing on a road near the town of Bethlehem, Army Radio reported. The two died, rescue services said.

Israel pulled troops out of Bethlehem and turned the town over to Palestinian security several weeks ago. It was not immediately clear if the attack would hamper talks on a ceasefire.

Speaking to Jewish leaders in Italy on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would meet his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia, "in the coming days." It would be their first summit meeting since Qureia took office more than a month ago.

The meeting might restart work on implementing the frozen U.S.-backed Mideast peace plan called the "road map." Negotiations stalled amid a two-month-long Palestinian political crisis that ended when Qureia's full government was installed last week, after he served under a decree by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for a month.

Palestinians reacted with caution. One official said a positive outcome had to be assured reflecting failed summits between Sharon and Qureia's predecessor and another said the Palestinian premier wanted to work out truce terms with Palestinian factions before a summit with the Israelis.

It was the first time that Sharon had confirmed that he would be meeting Qureia, though it was widely expected that the two leaders would meet after Qureia's Cabinet was approved.

Sharon met with Qureia's predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, four times, but Palestinians complained that there were few concrete results from the meetings. Abbas resigned Sept. 6 in frustration with Israel and because of turf battles with Arafat, creating a vacuum that was filled only when Qureia's Cabinet was installed Nov. 12.

Qureia has said he would be prepared to meet Sharon, but only if a positive outcome was assured. The Palestinians demand that Israel remove roadblocks and other restrictions that have crippled Palestinian life during the conflict. Israel says the barriers are necessary to keep attackers away.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator with Israel, told The Associated Press that no date had been set for the summit meeting. "This meeting needs to be well prepared," he said, "but we are not against meeting with Sharon."

Another Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Qureia wanted to negotiate a cease-fire with Palestinian factions first, and then he would meet Sharon.

In Rome, Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said the meeting could possibly come next week, although nothing had yet been arranged.

"There's no problem on our part," he said. "The other side asked for some time."

An earlier truce halted most violence for six weeks in the summer but collapsed amid Palestinian bombing attacks and Israeli military operations, stalling peace efforts.

Truce efforts continued Monday. Egyptian security chief Omar Suleiman met Monday with Israeli officials as well as Qureia and Arafat, noting "positive signs" from the Israelis. A cease-fire is seen as an essential first step toward progress along the "road map," which leads to a Palestinian state in 2005.

Suleiman told the Palestinians that Israeli leaders, while not giving any assurances, appeared receptive, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said after meeting with the intelligence chief.

"He did say that there is an opportunity that must be taken advantage of. There is a positive atmosphere and a new language," Shaath said. "He told us that he is optimistic."

Suleiman invited all the Palestinian groups for talks next Monday in Cairo, Shaath said. "Today's meeting was positive, but there is a need for further talks," he said.

A draft of a truce agreement is circulating among activists with Arafat's Fatah  movement, Palestinians said late Monday. The draft, initialed by Qureia, calls for a halt to Palestinian attacks against Israelis if Israel stops its military operations, the said, adding that it is still under discussion.

In the past, Israel has said it will only halt military strikes if Palestinian security forces begin dismantling militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. However, Israel has signaled in recent weeks that it is willing to test a truce for a limited period, without insisting on an immediate crackdown on armed groups.

Asked about truce prospects as he left Arafat's office, Suleiman said: "Hopefully, there is a cease-fire and dialogue and many good things."

Suleiman earlier held talks with Israel officials and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer.

Nafez Azzam, an Islamic Jihad spokesman in Gaza, said Monday his group is also willing to halt attack on Israelis "if Israel stops its attacks on our people."

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