By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 12, 2007
JERUSALEM, March 11 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met here Sunday for the second time in less than a month, but made little progress on reviving peace talks, exchanging prisoners or resolving differences over the nascent Palestinian power-sharing government.
The two-hour meeting came as the Bush administration is pressing the two sides, which have not engaged in formal peace negotiations in more than six years, to begin talks again as soon as possible. But Olmert and Abbas are both operating from weak political positions, and neither side expected any substantive agreements.
Palestinian officials said they were encouraged by Olmert's pledge to continue contacts with Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, even after his Fatah party joins Hamas in a power-sharing government scheduled to be announced later this month.
Olmert had threatened previously to end contacts with Abbas if he allowed Fatah to participate in a government with Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that does not recognize the Jewish state's right to exist.
"The expectations were not high going into this meeting," said Saeb Erekat, a Fatah lawmaker and the chief Palestinian negotiator. "But the fact that they agreed to continue contacts between the president and prime minister was crucial."
The next government, now being assembled by Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, is not likely to comply with Olmert's demand that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by previously signed agreements with the Jewish state.
Olmert told Abbas, according to an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity, that Israel "cannot cooperate with a new government -- or any part of a new government -- that does not recognize those conditions," although Olmert agreed to "regular meetings" with Abbas.
Those talks will probably address only day-to-day security and humanitarian issues in Israel and the Palestinian territories, delaying negotiations on the two-state solution that both leaders endorsed again in principle during the meeting. Olmert also pledged to extend the operating hours of the main cargo crossing from the Gaza Strip into Israel.
Olmert demanded that Abbas do more to halt the persistent Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza and stop the smuggling of weapons into the strip, carried out mostly through tunnels beneath its border with Egypt.
He also sought Abbas's help in brokering the release of an Israeli soldier captured last June in a cross-border raid near Gaza by three armed Palestinian groups, including the military wing of Hamas. Palestinians and Israeli officials said Abbas told Olmert he would do his best to secure the soldier's release before the new cabinet is in place.
The Palestinian power-sharing agreement, signed last month in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, was designed to end factional fighting that has killed roughly 130 Palestinians over the past year. Earlier in the day, Hamas and Fatah forces clashed in northern Gaza, and a Hamas commander was killed.
Before the weekly cabinet meeting, Olmert said Israel would "treat seriously" a Saudi-sponsored peace initiative that would grant the Jewish state recognition from its Arab neighbors in return for a full withdrawal from territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. The Arab League is scheduled to reiterate its support for the idea at a meeting later this month.
Israeli officials have rejected a section of the proposal that endorses the claim of Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel. Olmert suggested Sunday that Arab leaders should reconsider that section during their meeting.