Israel's prime minister and his Palestinian counterpart were to meet yesterday to discuss the way ahead for a US-led peace plan after a partial Israeli pull-out from the Gaza strip and a truce by Palestinian guerrillas.
The announcement of the talks between Israel's Ariel Sharon and reformist Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas came after the truce faltered on its first day on Monday when Palestinian militants shot dead a foreign worker.
The attack, killing a Bulgarian in the West Bank, underlined the fragility of peace moves after 33 months of violence. The latest truce was declared by leading militant factions and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
Sharon told a meeting of his parliamentary Likud faction on Monday that progress in peace talks depended on Palestinians "absolutely" suppressing violence. But he also said "a certain number" of Palestinian prisoners in Israel would be freed.
"Our readiness and ability to take risks to give the process a chance will grow if there will be quiet," Sharon said.
At the meeting to be held in Sharon's office in Jerusalem, Abbas is likely to present the militants' agreement to a truce as evidence of his reformist government's effectiveness in securing quiet.
But Sharon has demanded the dismantling of militant groups such as Hamas, which Israel fears will regroup during the ceasefire. He told the Likud there must be "a real war of the Palestinians against terror. Dismantling terror organisations will bring progress."
Palestinian spokesmen have said that Israel could help reduce support for militants by easing Palestinian daily life and withdrawing from Palestinian towns reoccupied at the peak of a Palestinian uprising for statehood last year.
Palestinian Security Minister Mohammed Dahlan said that Israel had agreed to leave the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, on Wednesday as its next confidence-building measure.
But a senior Israeli security source said the deal on Bethlehem was "not final." The security officials were scheduled to hold their own separate meeting yesterday to discuss it.
The talks between Sharon and Abbas will be the third since Abbas took office in April in a move, orchestrated by the US and Israel, to reform the Palestinian Authority.
Issues include a Bethlehem pullout, completion of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza strip and Palestinian prisoners.
Sharon recently described Abbas as a "chicken without wings" for failing to take action against militants, but in an apparent indication of goodwill, several leading Israeli and Palestinian ministers will participate in the meeting, army radio reported.
The US, the main sponsor of the "road map" designed to lead in steps by both sides to a Palestinian state and peace agreement by 2005, said the peace process may be "entering a new era."
"The President [George W. Bush] is encouraged by the work that the Israelis are doing together with the Palestinian Authority leaders," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Since Sunday, Palestinians and Israelis have taken the first tentative steps to implement the road map, drawn up by the US, Russia, the EU and UN. Many ordinary Israelis and Palestinians remain sceptical.
The plan charts steps leading to a Palestinian state on Gaza and West Bank territory by 2005, and requires the Palestinian police force to fill security gaps wherever Israel has withdrawn.