Summit Abbas-Sharon in doubt over disagreements on key issues

A much-anticipated summit between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders was suddenly thrown into doubt yesterday after Israel's defence minister rejected two key Palestinian demands meant to make the meeting a success.

Senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators failed to bridge the differences yesterday, but they agreed to meet one last time in hopes of salvaging the summit.

The meeting, tentatively set for Tuesday, would be the first between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas since Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last month.

The unilateral pullout has raised hopes throughout the world that peace talks might soon resume. Israeli and Palestinian officials say they want the summit to produce concrete results.

But the two sides are deadlocked over several Palestinian demands, including the reopening of Gaza's border with Egypt, the handover of West Bank towns to Palestinian security control, the release of prisoners held by Israel and demands for more weapons for the embattled Palestinian security services.

The two sides have made progress on other Palestinian demands in recent days, with Israel showing flexibility on the release of some of the more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners it holds and a possible compromise on reopening Gaza's border with Egypt.

Israel closed the Rafah terminal the main exit out of Gaza before the withdrawal. The Palestinians say reopening the border is essential for Gaza's ravaged economy.

Abbas is to travel to Washington later this month to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush, and he would be reluctant to arrive without any concrete achievements from a meeting with Sharon.

Israel reopened a cargo crossing on its border with Gaza on Sunday, and Palestinians said this would alleviate a shortage of fruit and dairy products in the territory. The Karni passage and others with the Palestinian area had been closed almost continuously since Sept. 24 after dozens of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, AP reports.

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