The talks, to be joined by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah, aim to solidify a shaky new de facto cease-fire by setting in motion a peace process based on a US-backed “road map” to a Palestinian state.

Mr Sharon, who refused to meet Abbas’s late predecessor Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian leader accepted invitations from Mr Mubarak to meet at Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea on February 8th.

Mubarak’s office said it was time for a summit “in light of the delicacy of the stage the peace process is going through and in an endeavour to seize the auspicious opportunity to achieve tangible progress on the Palestinian track.”

Egypt and Jordan signed peace deals with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively, the only Arab states to do so, and have acted as intermediaries during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A senior Israeli official said Mr Sharon would be looking at the summit for Palestinian commitments to “prevent terrorism” by dissolving militant groups.

“They want to move fast on political issues but we will accept no leapfrogging over security commitments written into the first phase of the road map,” he said.

Mr Abbas, citing a concern not to stir civil unrest, has said he wants to co-opt rather than crush militants many Palestinians regard favourably as “freedom fighters” in occupied territories.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said Mr Abbas would seek an Israeli promise to stop all military action, free thousands of jailed militants and withdraw forces from Palestinian areas.

He said Palestinians “will exert 100 per cent effort” on security but expected Israel to honour reciprocal obligations in the road map, including a halt to expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Mr Abbas’s election last month to succeed Arafat, whom Israel and the United States shunned after branding him an obstacle to peace, has rekindled US engagement in Middle East diplomacy.

New Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to meet Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas separately during a trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah the day before the summit.

But a stable, lasting peace may still be far off. Israel plans to quit Gaza this summer but vows to keep larger West Bank settlements forever. The two sides also remain poles apart on the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Palestinians want all of the West Bank and Gaza for a state with East Jerusalem as their capital. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Middle East war.

The two sides also disagree over the pace and goals of talks. Mr Sharon would prefer a longer-term interim deal for a provisional Palestinian state with Israel overseeing its borders. Palestinians want full independence in the near future.

Hair-trigger tensions simmer. In fresh outbreaks of shooting since Sunday, Israeli soldiers killed an elderly Palestinian in a Gaza border zone and Palestinians fired more mortars into Jewish settlements in Gaza, causing damage but no casualties.

In an apparent Egyptian effort to shore up and formalise the cease-fire, leaders of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant factions were in Cairo for talks on Wednesday.

In Amman, King Abdullah met President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, which Israel says is aiding Palestinian militants. Mr Sharon has responded coolly to signals Mr Assad is open to direct talks.

Israel said earlier it might suspend its hunt for militants to help Mr Abbas, who aides say could command more obedience from gunmen if Israeli forces ended raids to kill or capture them.

Officials said Prime Minister Sharon would convene his inner cabinet on Thursday to discuss halting the pursuit of wanted men.

The US is encouraging the new Israeli-Palestinian talks with the White House announcing that President George W. Bush will pledge greater assistance for the Palestinians, including a financial aid package that could total nearly $350 million to bolster development and security, in his State of the Union address this week.

Sources said US aid would help the Palestinians prepare for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza later this year, and is expected to be tied to Palestinian efforts in stopping violence and carrying out reforms.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that Israel is rethinking the application of a property law under which thousands of hectares of Palestinian-owned land could be seized.

The US is concerned a 1950 absentee owners law could be used to take land from Palestinians cut off by Israel’s separation barrier.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government decided to implement the controversial Absentee Property Law in east Jerusalem last July.

It was originally enacted to allow the seizure of property of Palestinians who fled to neighbouring Arab countries during Israel’s creation in 1948.

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