Olmert and Abbas broach peace talks

The Baltimore Sun

Jerusalem -- With two army helicopters escorting his motorcade, Ehud Olmert ventured into the West Bank yesterday to discuss the most divisive issues of a possible peace settlement, the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Palestinian territory in seven years.

"I am delighted to see you," Olmert said, embracing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas inside a heavily guarded hotel in the city of Jericho. The Israeli leader said he had come to discuss "fundamental issues" in the decades-old conflict, "hoping that this will lead us soon into negotiations about the creation of a Palestinian state."

Spokesmen for both leaders said their three-hour meeting was the start of an effort to shape the agenda of a Middle East peace conference that President Bush has called for this fall. But they announced no agreements except to keep meeting frequently.

Abbas had held six previous meetings with Olmert starting last December to discuss how to revive the full-fledged peace talks that were broken off in 2000 after the start of a Palestinian uprising.

Their meetings have produced some confidence-building steps, such as Israel's release of 255 prisoners and an agreement by 178 Palestinian militants to stop fighting the Jewish state.

Until now, however, Olmert had been reluctant to address the core issues standing in the way of a settlement. Israeli officials said he feared that Abbas cannot control the militants and that any breakdown in peace talks could lead to new violence.

Yesterday's meeting marked a slight shift in Olmert's position.

"It was different from the other meetings because now both men are engaged in talking about the fundamental issues of the conflict," Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator who sat in on part of the session, told reporters.

"Mr. Olmert and President Abbas did not come to the meeting with magic wands," he said. "I do not want to raise anyone's expectations. But I think the meeting was very serious, very deep, and they agreed to continue their endeavor."

Olmert's shift came after prodding from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited the region last week. She urged him and Abbas to tackle the most divisive issues between now and the peace conference, which is expected to be held in November.

Those issues, which Abbas has said he wants to settle without delay, include the final borders of a future Palestinian state, conflicting claims to Jerusalem, the status of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes before or during Israel's 1948 war of independence, and the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Olmert agreed to put those issues on the table but Israeli officials said he is hesitant to try resolving them before the conference. Instead, they said, he wants to hammer out an "agreement of principles" that, if endorsed by the conference, would guide detailed negotiations later on.

Olmert did agree to consider new steps to build the Palestinians' trust in peace talks. Abbas asked him to free more prisoners and to allow 39 West Bank militants to return home from exile in the Gaza Strip and Europe.

The Israeli leader's visit to Jericho was meant to raise Abbas' stature among the Palestinians, whose loyalties are sharply divided between Abbas' secular Fatah movement and Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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