Senior Palestinian negotiator Saib Uraiqat was to meet on Sunday Dov Weisglass, the chief of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, to lay the groundwork for a meeting between Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya.
 
The meeting came despite a threat by Quraya to pull out of peace negotiations if Israel does not halt construction of a West Bank barrier.

Meanwhile, US envoy William Burns was scheduled to meet Sharon and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, after meeting Quraya in Amman, Jordan, late on Saturday. Burns is the first senior US official to meet the two sides since Quraya's new cabinet was sworn in earlier this month.

In another development, two key Palestinian negotiators of a symbolic peace agreement said they would not attend a signing ceremony in Switzerland on Monday after Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat refused to give written approval for the accord. While the "Geneva Accord" is an unofficial deal, it enjoys significant support among Israelis and Palestinians.

Apartheid wall

Quraya issued his threat on Saturday, saying he sees no need to meet with Sharon if Israel does not show a willingness to compromise on the barrier and a host of other contentious issues.

"If they have an honest desire to seriously study these issues, the meeting will take place," Quraya said. "If the Israeli government says it will continue building the wall... then there is no need for any meeting."

Israel says the barrier is necessary for security reasons.

But Palestinians say the structure is an Israeli effort to seize Palestinian land. The barrier is expected to run 692 km along the Israel-West Bank border, but parts will dip deep into the West Bank.

Israel's apartheid wall cuts through
Palestinian land

Sharon has said he will not accept any preconditions for a meeting with Quraya.
 
In recent days, the Israeli prime minister has said he plans a series of "unilateral" steps if peace talks with the Palestinians fail. Sharon has not detailed the steps, but media reports said they could include the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

On Sunday, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Sharon and army chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, have clashed over the unilateral measures. The military opposes unilateral dismantling of settlements, saying they would reward terror, the report said.

The report said the military prefers to give the Quraya government a chance to succeed. Yaalon last month criticized Sharon for Israel's crackdown in the Palestinian areas, saying the harsh measures were encouraging, rather than deterring, Palestinian fighters.

Revive peace process

Uraiqat, the Palestinian negotiator, said the goal of his meeting on Sunday with Weisglass is make sure a meeting between Sharon and Quraya is fruitful.

"The main thing between us and the Israelis is to revive the peace process, to re-engage through meaningful negotiations and ... the preparations must be based on how to implement the road map in good faith," Uraiqat told The Associated Press.
 
Burns' trip to Jerusalem followed his meeting on Saturday night with Quraya in Amman.

"The main thing between us and the Israelis is to revive the peace process"

Saib Uraiqat
Senior Palestinian negotiator

Burns is trying to revive the road map, which has stalled amid continued fighting.

Quraya did not comment after the meeting. But Palestinian officials said beforehand that the prime minister would urge Burns to pressure Israel to halt construction of the barrier and to withdraw from Palestinian areas.

Quraya also was expected to tell Burns that he is optimistic that he can persuade Palestinian militants, in talks beginning on Tuesday in Egypt, to halt attacks on Israel.

Quraya hopes to deliver a truce agreement to the Israeli government to pave the way for a cease-fire deal and renew talks with Israel on the road map. The plan sets out a series of stages leading to an independent Palestinian state by 2005.