Olmert, Abbas Discuss 'Core Issues' for Peace

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

JERUSALEM, Aug. 28 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas discussed in broad terms Tuesday the issues most important to the creation of a Palestinian state in advance of a U.S.-sponsored peace conference proposed for this fall.

Israeli government officials said the nearly three-hour session, the latest in a series of meetings between the leaders that have been encouraged by the Bush administration, touched on as-yet-unfulfilled pledges by Olmert to Abbas to improve living conditions for Palestinians. But Israeli government spokesman David Baker said the leaders, in their private session, also discussed "fundamental issues that are essential to achieving the two-states-for-two-peoples objective."

The phrase is shorthand for such overarching matters as the final borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and the claim by Palestinian refugees of the right to return to their homes in Israel.

Abbas told Palestinian news media before the Tuesday meeting that an international conference this fall would be a "waste of time" unless "core issues" are taken up formally. Following the meeting, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters here that Tuesday's session addressed statehood but "did not reach the level of details."

The meeting took place as Israeli and Palestinian officials debate the form and agenda for the fall conference, proposed by a Bush administration seeking a clear diplomatic success in the Middle East before the end of its term. The date has not been set, but Israeli and Palestinian officials are working on the assumption it will be held in November. The guest list is also still in the works.

Olmert, whose domestic political standing remains weak, has advocated the drafting of a general "declaration of principles" as the template for discussion over how to restart a peace process. Israeli and Palestinian leaders last held formal talks in January 2001.

Abbas, also struggling politically, has pushed for a more detailed and binding agenda that would address the core issues in an international setting. Israeli leaders have traditionally been wary of taking on those issues in such a venue, preferring to avoid outside pressure through direct talks with the Palestinians.

Abbas's warning before Tuesday's meeting served as a reminder to Olmert, as well as to the Bush administration, that the conference would be fruitless unless real progress could be made on achieving a Palestinian state.

Israeli officials said Abbas also raised quality-of-life issues with Olmert during the meeting, which was held at the prime minister's Jerusalem residence. Olmert pledged during their last meeting three weeks ago that he would remove some of the more than 450 roadblocks, military checkpoints and other obstacles in the West Bank that severely complicate movement between major Palestinian cities.

He has yet to do so. His defense minister, Ehud Barak, strongly opposes the move on security grounds. Israeli officials said Olmert told Abbas on Tuesday that he was expecting a detailed security plan on removing some of the obstacles and would act after reviewing it.

Although little concrete progress has come from the meetings, Israeli and Palestinian officials say cooperation between the governments is improving at nearly every level.

This fall, the two sides are planning to launch a joint economic council under the auspices of former British prime minister Tony Blair, the new envoy of the Quartet, a group of Middle East peace mediators comprising the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Olmert and Abbas also discussed ways of stopping arms smuggling into Gaza from Egypt, a task made more difficult since Hamas took control of the strip in June. A senior Israeli security official told lawmakers this week that the armed Islamic movement has smuggled 40 tons of explosives into Gaza from Egypt since the takeover.

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