Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said on Thursday he would meet Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in the Middle East next week to try and agree a cease-fire after 11 months of fighting.
He spoke on a day of further violence in which Israeli helicopter gunships killed two Palestinians in the West Bank and Palestinian gunmen struck back by killing an Israeli, making efforts to hold the truce talks look even more precarious.
Before a dinner with Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero at a resort on Lake Como, Peres said he and Arafat both hoped next week's meeting would be the first of three.
Asked by reporters if he would meet the Palestinian leader, Peres said: "Yes."
Pressed about the timing, he said: "It will be...one meeting next week and then there will be an interval."
Peres said the meeting would be in the Middle East because such talks were easier to hold "closer to home."
Palestinian officials said this week that Taba in Egypt or the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel were possible venues.
Peres said the goal of the series of three encounters was to discuss implementing a cease-fire that was brokered by the United States earlier this year but never took hold.
"Our purpose will be to achieve a cease-fire so we should be able to implement the Mitchell report," he said.
Drawn up by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, the truce plan called for an immediate halt to violence followed by confidence-building steps, such as a freeze on Jewish settlement building and the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation before further peace negotiations.
"MURDER IN COLD BLOOD"
Arafat and Peres, partners in a 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, have met several times with little result since the Palestinian uprising began late last September after peace talks stalled.
Earlier, Palestinian cabinet minister Nabil Shaath called Thursday's Israeli missile strike "murder in cold blood" and said it could harm a European-led drive to set up the Arafat-Peres talks that has been going on for several weeks.
Two members of Arafat's Fatah faction were killed when an Israeli helicopter fired missiles at a jeep near the West Bank town of Tulkarm. But the main target, Fatah activist Raed al-Karmi, escaped with wounds.
Shaath had said Arafat would not talk with Peres unless the meeting also covered diplomatic efforts to broker a peace deal and not just Israel's demand for an end to the uprising.
"We will not go to the meeting until we receive clear answers (from Israel)," Shaath said, adding that Peres must come armed with a mandate to negotiate with Arafat.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has given Peres the go-ahead for a meeting on condition it deals only with implementing the cease-fire that both sides have accepted.
Arrangements for Peres and Arafat to meet on the sidelines of a business conference near Milan at the weekend faltered over a Palestinian demand that a clear agenda be drawn up beforehand.
TIT FOR TAT
The Israeli army said it attacked Karmi and his squad of gunmen to retaliate for six Israeli deaths.
Just hours after the attack, Palestinian gunmen from a group affiliated with Fatah claimed responsibility for a drive-by shooting in which an Israeli man was killed and a woman badly wounded on an Israeli road bordering the West Bank near Tulkarm.
Sharon said his cabinet would discuss a controversial military plan to seal off zones in the border area in a bid to prevent attacks.
In all, some 556 Palestinians and 158 Israelis have died in the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.
The European Union has taken the lead in trying to arrange the Arafat-Peres meeting but the State Department said on Thursday that Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to both men on Wednesday about the prospects of a meeting.
Powell discussed with them "how it can be made productive and useful, and (how) to get us back on a path where we can see the parties take steps against the violence," a State Department spokesman said.
He repeated that the United States opposes Israel's "targeted attacks" on leading Palestinians and called on the Palestinians to prevent suicide bombings, mortar attacks and shooting incidents aimed at Israelis.
Israel has tracked down and killed dozens of Palestinian militants it says are behind attacks against Israelis under a policy widely criticized internationally.
Also on Thursday the militant Islamic group Hamas threatened a new wave of attacks in a statement claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing in Jerusalem this week that wounded 15 people and killed the bomber disguised as a bearded ultra-Orthodox Jew.