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Violence Overshadows Mideast Summit

In the first top-level talks in more than two years, the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers tried Saturday to work out sharp disagreements over a U.S.-backed peace plan, but their three-hour summit was overshadowed by violence.

In separate Palestinian attacks in the West Bank, a suicide bomber killed an Israeli man and his pregnant wife, and a gunman went on a shooting spree in a Jewish settlement, critically wounding one resident.

The meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, at Sharon's Jerusalem office ended after three hours. The two had gone into the talks with a long list of conflicting demands in the highest-level meeting between the two sides since fighting erupted 31 months ago.

They disagree over the United States "road map" plan to Mideast peace, including over who should make the first move. The summit could be a bellwether for future U.S. mediation efforts. If top-level Israeli-Palestinian talks fail to produce results, Washington might have to press the sides harder or even consider imposing solutions.

But CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger, in Jerusalem, says U.S. officials are heartened the meeting took place at all.

President Bush has not spelled out how far he is willing to go in ensuring progress on the "road map," a three-stage prescription for ending violence quickly and setting up a Palestinian state by 2005.

Sharon is to meet Mr. Bush on Tuesday in Washington to discuss more than dozen Israeli objections to the plan, which requires Israel to freeze settlement construction and withdraw from Palestinian towns in the first stage.

At the summit, Abbas planned to ask Sharon to accept the road map unequivocally, lift travel bans on Palestinians and stop hunting suspected militants in order to allow the Palestinians to launch their own campaign against militias, as required by the peace plan.

Israel says it will not budge until Abbas has taken real steps against the armed groups, including arrests and weapons sweeps. Regarding the road map, Sharon was not expected to give an answer before his meeting with Bush.

Instead, Sharon was to offer Abbas a troop withdrawal from parts of the northern Gaza Strip, including the town Beit Hanoun, as a test case. Palestinian security forces would take control there and try to stop rocket fire on Israeli border towns. If the experiment is successful, Israel would pull out of other Palestinian areas, according to the Israeli media reports.

Earlier this week, Israeli troops seized Beit Hanoun in response to renewed rocket fire on the Israeli town of Sderot, not far from Sharon's sheep farm in the Negev Desert. However, Israeli military reporters have said the main reason for the takeover appeared to be to create a bargaining chip for the summit.

In clashes in Beit Hanoun on Saturday, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian gunmen. Nine Palestinians were wounded, including a gunman and five teens, doctors said. The military said two of the teens threw a firebomb at a military vehicle.

In the divided West Bank town of Hebron, a Palestinian disguised as an observant Jew blew himself up in a downtown square, near Jewish settler enclaves. The bomber killed an Israeli man and his pregnant wife, the army said.

The assailant was later identified by relatives as Fuad Qawasmeh, 21, a supporter of the Islamic militant group Hamas, which has carried out scores of attacks on Israelis since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.

Palestinian militias have threatened to sabotage the road map, saying they would not halt attacks and would resist forcefully if Abbas tried to disarm them.

Later Saturday, as the meeting between Abbas and Sharon was winding down, at least one Palestinian gunman reportedly went on a shooting rampage in the Jewish settlement of Shaarei Tikvah. Paramedics said one man was critically wounded.

The Abbas-Sharon meeting is the first Israeli-Palestinian summit since September 2000 when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Several days after that meeting, Sharon, then the opposition leader, made a demonstrative visit to a disputed Jerusalem holy site, triggering large-scale Palestinian protests that quickly escalated into the current fighting.

In October 2000, Barak and Arafat attended Egyptian-sponsored cease-fire talks, but were part of a larger group of leaders, including then-U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Many Palestinian officials said they believe Saturday's summit largely serves Israeli interests. Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said Sharon is "using this meeting as a political ploy to mislead, or to give the impression that he can carry out negotiations and that he does have a Palestinian partner."

Sharon aides declined comment Saturday.

Israeli legislator Yossi Sarid, a leading dove, said it was time for Sharon to act. "The time has come for Mr. Sharon to prove that his remarks on the painful necessity of making concessions ... can finally be taken seriously," Sarid said.

Earlier Saturday, Abbas accepted the resignation of Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator who stepped down after being excluded from the summit. Erekat's accessibility and fluent English had made him a sought-after guest on TV news shows and a prominent spokesman for the Palestinian cause.

Erekat, who participated in negotiations with Israel for a decade, is close to Arafat, whom Israel and the United States are trying to sideline. Erekat's resignation was apparently prompted by the perceived slight, but growing tensions between Arafat and Abbas might also have played a role.

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