Monday, August 06, 2007

Prayers for Abbas and Olmert

From the Int'l Herald Tribune

JERICHO, West Bank: Ehud Olmert on Monday became the first Israeli prime minister to visit a Palestinian town since the outbreak of fighting seven years ago, meeting under heavy guard with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas here to talk about the creation of a Palestinian state.

Olmert took a security risk in coming to the desert town but also gave a symbolic boost to Abbas, who stands to gain stature by playing host to Olmert on his turf.

Accompanied by two helicopters, Olmert arrived by motorcade at a five-star hotel just a few hundred yards from a permanent Israeli Army checkpoint on the outskirts of Jericho.

The meeting was held in one of the West Bank's most peaceful areas. But it still posed a challenge to Olmert's security detail, since the West Bank cities are controlled by Abbas's weak police forces, which in June failed to prevent Hamas militants from seizing the Gaza Strip by force.

The meeting also tested renewed Israeli-Palestinian security coordination in the West Bank following the fall of Gaza to Hamas. The Israeli Army sealed checkpoints around Jericho, while Palestinian police blocked roads around the hotel.

The Abbas-Olmert meeting was one in a series of sessions meant to prepare for an international conference on the Middle East in the United States in November. The two sides, however, appeared to have conflicting expectations.

The Palestinians hoped the two leaders would sketch the outlines of a final peace deal to be presented to the U.S. conference, a Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Monday.

The four core issues of a future peace deal are the final borders of a Palestinian state, a division of Jerusalem, a removal of Israeli settlements and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

"What they need to do is to establish the parameters for solving all these issues," Erekat said. "Once the parameters are established, then it can be deferred to experts" for drafting.

But David Baker, an official in Olmert's office, said the core issues would not be discussed now. The leaders would discuss humanitarian aid to the Palestinians and Israeli security concerns, as well as the institutions of a future Palestinian state, Baker said.

Both sides said the meeting would also deal with easing daily life in the West Bank, including the removal of some of the checkpoints erected after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

Abbas and Olmert previously agreed to try to restore the situation to what it was before the uprising, including returning full Palestinian control over West Bank towns and cities.

However, the Israeli military has been slow to dismantle roadblocks or ease control over Palestinian towns, citing concerns that Abbas's forces are too weak to prevent attacks on Israelis.

Illustrating the issue, Olmert's motorcade passed through one of the army's checkpoints, at the entrance to Jericho. The checkpoint was erected after the outbreak of the uprising and has controlled Palestinian traffic in and out of the town ever since, often causing long delays for motorists.

The last meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Palestinian soil was in 2000, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel held talks with Abbas's predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat, in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The meeting is part of a recent flurry of peace efforts sparked by Hamas's takeover of Gaza in June, after a five-day rout of Abbas's Fatah movement.

The Hamas victory led Abbas to form a moderate government in the West Bank, which has received broad international backing, while Hamas has remained largely isolated in Gaza.

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