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Israeli, Palestinian leaders discuss obstacles to peace

August 29, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas broached issues at the heart of the Middle East conflict Tuesday during a session aimed at generating momentum for a U.S.-sponsored peace conference this fall, aides said.

Neither side announced any breakthroughs after the nearly three-hour meeting, held at Olmert's residence in Jerusalem. Olmert and Abbas talked mostly in private.

Spokesmen said the two leaders touched on the central disputes standing in the way of an agreement that would lead to creation of a Palestinian state. Those issues include the eventual borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who fled homes in what is now Israel.

The two leaders had discussed these so-called fundamental issues three weeks ago when they met in the West Bank town of Jericho.

Saeb Erekat, an Abbas aide, described the latest talks as serious but said the two leaders did not go into detail and had not reached the point of exchanging ideas on paper.

"I am not belittling these talks, but at the same time I am not trying to raise expectations," Erekat told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said that "the plan is to get as much achieved as possible" before the conference.

"We have a sense that we're going in the right direction and we're making good progress," Regev said.

President Bush last month said his administration would bring Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders together to revive the peace process leading to a Palestinian state. It has not been announced when or where the meeting will occur or who will attend, but officials here say they understand it is to take place in Washington in November.

The changed Palestinian political landscape since the Islamic movement Hamas violently took over the Gaza Strip in June has spawned much talk of fresh opportunities for peacemaking between Israel and Abbas, a relative moderate whose authority is now in effect limited to the West Bank.

The Bush administration, long criticized as doing too little to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, in recent months has been pressing the two sides into talks. Since Hamas forces routed Abbas' Fatah movement in Gaza, the administration has been especially eager to boost the Palestinian Authority president and his West Bank government, led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a Western favorite.

An Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the framework for a future peace deal could encourage key Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, a staunch U.S. ally that has no diplomatic ties with Israel, to take part in the conference. It would also represent a needed boost for the regional diplomacy of a U.S. administration mired in war in Iraq.

But it is unclear whether Israel and the Palestinians can so quickly reach an agreement that is substantive and sufficiently detailed to satisfy the Saudis and other skeptics. Hamas leaders said the talks would fail.

There have been no serious peace negotiations since 2001. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and, more recently, Olmert refused to discuss make-or-break issues with the Palestinians, haggling instead over more mundane matters such as the removal of Israeli checkpoints and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

In a possible sign of intensifying talks, Israeli news media have reported on proposals being floated on the Israeli side, including land swaps, ideas for sharing Jerusalem and possible solutions on the refugee issue.

But the two sides have widely contrasting agendas. Palestinian leaders want to move into detailed negotiations over the elements of a peace deal, while Israel appears for now to favor limiting talks to more general principles of a future settlement.

Olmert and Abbas are politically weak, complicating the odds of concessions on the most volatile issues. At the same time, analysts say, an appearance of progress on the peace front could give new life to both leaders.

For example, signs of a renewed peace process could help shield Olmert against anticipated fallout from findings of a commission that has investigated Israel's war last year with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

The panel, known as the Winograd Commission, is to issue its final report in coming weeks. Harsh conclusions about Olmert's wartime leadership could bring calls for his resignation even fiercer than those triggered by the panel's interim report earlier this year.

Abbas, now in charge of only a portion of a would-be Palestinian state, is also on shaky footing.

A credible agreement on the outlines of an eventual peace with Israel could boost his standing and re-energize his beleaguered Fatah. But Israeli officials warn that Hamas may seek to thwart renewed peace moves by launching a new wave of attacks against Israel.

Israeli officials cited an incident a day before the Olmert-Abbas meeting as evidence of an improved spirit of cooperation.

On Monday, Palestinian security forces rescued an Israeli military officer from possible attack after he entered the West Bank town of Jenin by mistake. Palestinian police escorted the officer away unharmed after a hostile crowd gathered around him.

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ellingwood@latimes.com

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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