Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas declared Tuesday that their people would stop all military or violent activity, pledging to break the four-year cycle of bloodshed and get peace talks back on track.
With the flags of their countries whipping in the wind, Sharon and Abbas met face-to-face at a Mideast summit Tuesday. In one sign the talks went well, Egypt and Jordan announced immediately afterward that they would return their ambassadors to Israel after a four-year absence — possibly within days.
But the Palestinian militant group Hamas immediately called the deal into question. The group's representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, told The Associated Press it would not be bound by the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire declarations.
Yet the cease-fire deal, and the sight of Sharon and Abbas smiling broadly as they leaned across a long white table to shake hands, were the clearest signs yet of momentum in the peace process after Yasser Arafat's death in November and Abbas' election to succeed him in January. An invitation to both sides to meet separately with President Bush at the White House this spring added another round of momentum on the summit's eve.
"We have agreed on halting all violent actions against Palestinians and Israelis wherever they are," Abbas declared in a statement made after the meetings, as he, Sharon, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II sat at a round table.
Sharon made a similar pledge.
"Today, in my meeting with chairman Abbas, we agreed that all Palestinians will stop all acts of violence against all Israelis everywhere, and, at the same time, Israel will cease all its military activity against all Palestinians everywhere," he said.
Abbas said he expected the cease-fire pledges to pave the way for resumption of talks on so-called "final status" issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem's status, all within the context of the Mideast "road map" to peace. Sharon said he also expected the deal Tuesday to set the stage for the implementation of the "road map."
During the summit, Sharon also invited Abbas to visit him at his ranch in southern Israel and Abbas accepted, according to a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, Gideon Meir.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said that meeting would take place soon.
Sharon said he would like the next meeting between the two leaders to be in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said his adviser, Raanan Gissin.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, a key parliamentary committee narrowly approved a bill that would allow Sharon to carry out his planned pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in the summer. The vote passed 10-9 on a subject that has split Sharon's party and angered his main constituency — settlers and their supporters.
Abbas said it was time for the Palestinian people to regain their freedom.
"A new opportunity for peace is born today in the city of peace. Let's pledge to protect it," Abbas said, referring to the nickname of Sharm el-Sheik earned through past peace summits.
And Sharon, in what he said was a direct address to the Palestinian people, said: "I assure you that we have a genuine intention to respect your rights to live independently and in dignity. I have already said that Israel has no desire to continue to govern over you and control your fate."
Mubarak, who summoned the two leaders and has been a key mediator, said both sides showed a serious desire to "work together truly and sincerely."
"The challenges today are large and deep, but the mission is not impossible. If the road is long, we today took the first step," Mubarak said.
"The Palestinian and Israeli peoples equally deserve a secure life for the coming generations to enjoy, based on justice, international principles and good neighborliness," the Egyptian president added in a speech he said he was delivering on behalf of himself and Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Egypt and Jordan will return their ambassadors to Israel, although he did not give a timetable. Egypt and Jordan lowered their diplomatic representation in Israel in late 2000 in protest at what they saw as Israel's excessive use of force against Palestinians in the fighting that began in September that year. While Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv, Jordan decided not to send the ambassador it had newly appointed.
Mubarak also said there was fresh hope for the Syrian-Lebanese peace track. Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations have been frozen since 2000.
"Our goal is lasting peace in the Middle East, therefore, our movement will be followed by other moves to revive both the Syrian and Lebanese tracks," he said.
Meir said that "there was a great atmosphere in the talks ... smiles and joking."
Gissin said that as part of Israel's halting of military operations, it would stop its controversial targeted killing operations against wanted Palestinians, as long as the Palestinians kept militants under control. Gissin noted Israeli flags, flying outside the summit convention center alongside the flags of Arab countries, calling it a sign of more hopeful times.
"But there's one thing that must be made very clear ... there will be no flexibility whatsoever, no compromise whatsoever on fighting terrorism," he said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking during a visit to Rome, said there seemed to be a will for peace in the Middle East, but warned a long road was ahead.
Rice also urged the new Palestinian leadership to move resolutely to control violence against Israel by its own people. She acknowledged the limits of the Palestinian security forces, but said "there are places where they can act."
She said when the Palestinian forces arrest someone, they should hold him, when they see a bombmaking facility they should destroy it and when they see smuggling they should stop it.
Before the summit began, the Israeli military said Palestinians opened fire on an Israeli military vehicle moving along the security fence surrounding the Gush Katif bloc of Jewish settlements in southern Gaza. No injuries or damage were reported. Israeli troops also arrested two Hamas members near the West Bank town of Jenin, the army said, adding that this arrest, like others in the past 10 days, was carried out with the specific approval of the army chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon.
Israelis also briefly sealed off the West Bank town of Nablus.
The comments by Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, came shortly after Abbas and Sharon declared an end to all military and violent operations.
"The talk about what the leader of the Palestinian Authority called a cessation of acts of violence is not binding on the resistance because this is a unilateral stand and was not the result of the outcome of an intra-Palestinian dialogue as has been agreed previously," Hamdan told the AP.
Mahmoud Zaha, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, earlier struck a cautionary note, saying the radical Islamic group, which has been responsible for hundreds of attacks against Israelis in the past four years, would evaluate the summit before committing itself to halting violence.
Sharon's visit angered some Egyptians, and university students led by Islamic student groups demonstrated peacefully on their campuses Monday and Tuesday. At Cairo University, about 350 students burned Israeli and American flags and shouted against Sharon.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the agreement also included the establishment of joint committees — one to determine criteria for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, and the other to oversee the gradual withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian cities on the West Bank.
The senior Israeli official said that after Sharon's declaration of an end to military operations, the two sides would go back to operating as they did before the 2000 outbreak of fighting: In Palestinian-controlled areas, including most of Gaza and eventually most West Bank towns, the Israelis would coordinate with Palestinian security forces if they wanted to arrest someone.
It was not clear what rules would apply in the towns that for now continue to be under Israeli security control — Jenin and Nablus.
Significant steps have been taken since Arafat's death to reconcile Israel's primary concern of security with Arabs' main objective of getting the "road map" on the fast track.
Abbas has deployed police to keep the peace in Gaza, ordered arrests of some operatives and appears to have won pledges from militants to halt attacks on Israel.
On the Israeli side, the government is pledging to free 900 of the about 8,000 Palestinian prisoners and gradually pull out of five Palestinian towns on the West Bank.