The Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers will meet on Sunday to start a week of focused Middle East diplomacy, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in an interview in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
Palestinian officials said the meeting might take place even sooner. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas canceled a planned meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of a week ago, when he came under fire from Palestinian President Yasser Arafat for botching negotiations with the Israelis.
But under pressure from Egypt, Abbas and Arafat have since reached a power-sharing agreement, and Arafat has reluctantly approved plans for Abbas to travel to Washington. Now, in his first such diplomatic venture as prime minister, Abbas plans to follow up his meeting with Sharon with visits to Egypt, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states, before flying to Washington for talks at the White House with US President George W. Bush on July 25.
Sharon will follow him to Washington for a meeting with Bush on July 29, said Shalom, who is to address the foreign ministers of the EU on Monday before heading to Washington for his own round of meetings with US Vice President Dick Cheney and others.
"Next week is going to be a very, very intensive political week," Shalom said.
In the interview, Shalom, a leader of Sharon's hawkish Likud Party, surveyed the peace effort and its impact on Israel's relations throughout the region, expressing a cautious optimism that a diplomatic logjam may be breaking.
"I'm very encouraged, I must tell you, much more than I was before," Shalom said, referring to the talks with Abbas and his allies. "I believe that this new leadership, that speaks differently -- it might be that they mean differently." But he said Abbas had to take action to break apart militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which he said were using this period of relative calm to rebuild.