Olmert, Abbas meet in Jordan


JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met informally in Jordan yesterday, and aides said the leaders would hold official talks in coming weeks.

The two leaders attended a breakfast held by Jordan's King Abdullah II as part of a two-day gathering of Nobel laureates and business and political leaders near the ruins of the ancient town of Petra.

Olmert and Abbas shook hands and smiled for the cameras but did not delve into substantive matters, officials said. It was their first meeting since Olmert's centrist Kadima party won Israeli elections in March.

Olmert expressed his regret to Abbas over the deaths of more than a dozen Palestinian civilians killed in recent Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, the Associated Press reported. "It is against our policy and I am very, very sorry," Olmert said.

Abbas told reporters after the meeting that the two sides would begin planning next week for a subsequent face-to-face session. Aides to both men said the meeting would likely take place next month, though no date is set.

Abbas, a relative moderate who has jousted for months with the radical Hamas movement now in charge of the Palestinian government, has been eager to sit down with Olmert in hopes of reviving long-dormant peace talks.

The Israeli prime minister has promised since the March elections that such a meeting would take place soon. Olmert wants Israel to set national borders by 2010 - and has said he'll do so unilaterally if he deems there is no chance for progress in negotiations with the Palestinians.

Under Olmert's plan, called a "realignment," Israel would withdraw on its own from most of the West Bank while consolidating its grip on the main Jewish settlements closer to Israel. The idea was the centerpiece of Kadima's campaign, but recent polls of Israelis have found a drop in support. King Abdullah opposes any attempt by Israel to set borders unilaterally.

The Bush administration has urged Israel to negotiate with Abbas under the U.S.-backed diplomatic blueprint known as the "road map" to peace. The United States and European Union view Abbas as the only realistic alternative to Hamas, which they call a terrorist group, and see fruitful talks with Israel as a way to bolster him.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, a Nobel laureate who attended the Petra conference, said it was important that any meeting produce good results.

"Olmert knows that the most dangerous thing now, when the Palestinians have not yet settled their internal dispute, would be for the meeting to end in failure," Peres was quoted as telling the daily Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

The gathering in Petra came as Israel faced sharp criticism for a string of airstrikes that have killed 14 Palestinian civilians in a little more than a week. On Wednesday, a man and woman in the town of Khan Younis died after an Israeli missile missed its target - a vehicle believed to be carrying Palestinian militants - and instead hit a house.

More than a dozen other people were injured during that strike, which took place a day after three children died in a missile attack north of Gaza City.

On June 13, nine civilians died when an Israeli aircraft fired at a car carrying militants who were thought to be on their way to launch rockets into southern Israel.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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