JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who steadfastly has resisted full-fledged peace talks with the Palestinians, held a wide-ranging discussion with their leader yesterday on relations between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were accompanied by aides for the first half of the two-hour meeting and then talked one-on-one. They issued no statements afterward, leaving the aides to give somewhat differing accounts.
Saeb Erekat, an aide to Abbas, called the meeting a breakthrough, the first time since the collapse of peace talks in 2001 that the two sides had discussed a scenario for Palestinian independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We started today to talk about a political horizon" beyond the conflict, Erekat told reporters. "It was a good beginning."
However, Israeli officials said Olmert avoided "final status" issues at the heart of the conflict, including the borders of a future Palestinian state, a possible division of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees wanting to return to homes in Israel.
The luncheon meeting at Olmert's official residence was arranged under prodding by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is struggling to revive peace efforts. The two men, who had held three previous encounters since December, agreed recently at Rice's insistence to meet every two weeks.
Olmert has refused to address final status issues unless the Palestinian Authority government, a coalition of Abbas' Fatah movement and the Hamas movement that refuses to make peace with Israel, explicitly recognizes the Jewish state and forswears violence.
Meanwhile, the Israelis say, any talks about a peace settlement are hypothetical.
"They did not speak about final status issues," David Baker, an Olmert spokesman, said after yesterday's meeting. "They did speak about a political horizon, which included economic cooperation with a future Palestinian state and expanding the dialogue about economic ventures with Palestinians and how a future Palestinian economy would be comprised in such a state."
But Erekat, at a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said the two leaders touched indirectly on key political issues while discussing a recently revived Saudi peace initiative. He predicted a more substantive discussion in the coming weeks.
"Not all issues can be resolved in one, two or three meetings," Erekat said. "But I can say that we have started to talk."
Before the meeting, Olmert repeated his willingness to hold talks "with any group of Arab countries on their ideas" for a settlement with the Palestinians, indicating that Israel would take part in preliminary talks on the Saudi initiative that are being organized by the Arab League. The initiative calls for a Palestinian state on territory held by Israel since the 1967 Mideast war, in exchange for Arab recognition of the Jewish state.
Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.