Jericho presidents' meeting signals hope for Palestine-Israel deal

By staff writers
August 6, 2007

Amid tight security, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Palestinian soil – in a joint move which offers fresh hope to a peace process long submerged in division and violence.

Olmert told Abbas that he hopes that negotiations can be launched "soon" on establishing a Palestinian state, his clearest promise yet to tackle a final peace deal.

Observers noted that the style and architecture of the three-hour session was at least as important as the content.

Half of the time was devoted to private face-to-face conversation in the absence of advisers. This would have been unthinkable even a few months ago.

Olmert became the first Israeli leader to visit a Palestinian town after seven years of bloody fighting. Israeli and Palestinian security forces worked together to protect him, blocking all access to the five-star hotel in Jericho.

President Mahmoud Abbas’s own authority will have been enhanced by hosting Olmert, symbolically levelling the uneven relationship of occupier and occupied. But his relations with the Israeli leader will also arouse suspicion and opposition in large sections of the Palestinian community.

And in spite of the good will evidenced by the meeting, the two sides have very different ideas about what should happen next.

The Palestinians say that after years of delay, it is now time to start talking about the terms of Palestinian statehood, including final borders, the removal of Israeli settlements and how to achieve a fair sharing of Jerusalem.

Israel wants to move ahead more slowly, in part because previous talks in 2000 collapsed over the so-called core issues and because Olmert may not be strong enough politically to make far-reaching concessions.

The United States, traditionally pro-Israeli, has been urging both sides to make progress, ahead of a Middle East peace conference in the US due in November 2007.

Both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush have invested their reputations on achieving a deal, particularly in the light of the disastrous impact of the Iraq invasion and occupation in the region and worldwide.

President Olmert is in theory committed eager to backing the moderate President Abbas against the militant Hamas movement which seized Gaza by force in June 2007 and inflicted great damage on Abbas’s Fateh party.

But there is also a sense in which hardliners on both sides need each other to avoid what they will regard as unacceptable compromises, and Olmert gave out a decidedly mixed message today – saying that core issues will be addressed, but not yet.

"I came here in order to discuss with you the fundamental issues outstanding between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, hoping that this will lead us soon into negotiations about the creation of a Palestinian state," Olmert declared, framed by the Israeli and Palestinian flags in Jericho.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the two leaders agreed to hold more talks until the fall, but made no major announcement. Abbas "did not come to the meeting with a magic wand, and neither did Mr Olmert," he commented.

In Gaza, Hamas dismissed the meeting as useless. Ismail Haniyeh, fired by Abbas as prime minister after the Gaza takeover, said experience has shown that peace talks bring no benefits.

The weakness of the US strategy is that it appears committed to moving ahead without any Hamas involvement, in spite of the verdict of democratic elections that put it into power in the Palestinian Authority.

President Abbas and Olmert also talked about improving the dismal daily life of Palestinians in the West Bank.

This includes removing some of the Israeli checkpoints that were set up after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000. The checkpoints are the main tool of Israeli control in the West Bank, disrupting trade and often causing long delays for Palestinian motorists.

Erekat said Israel's Defence Ministry is to present a plan next week on easing travel restrictions. An attempt will be made to restore the situation to what it was before the outbreak of the uprising, including renewing Palestinian control over West Bank towns and cities.

However, Israel's military has been slow to remove checkpoints, citing concerns that President Abbas' forces are still too weak to rein in militants and keep them from attacking Israel.

Significantly, the famous walls of Jericho remained firmly in place after the historic meeting, and all sides admitted that it is too early to blow and trumpets.

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