Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday during their first meeting in Palestine that he hopes to begin negotiations soon on establishing a Palestinian state.
The trappings of the three-hour session were perhaps as important as the content.
Olmert became the first Israeli leader to visit a Palestinian town after seven years of bloody fighting, and Israeli and Palestinian security forces worked together to protect him, blocking all access to the five-star hotel in the biblical oasis of Jericho where the meeting took place.
Abbas, in turn, gained some stature by hosting Olmert, at least symbolically leveling the uneven relationship of occupier and occupied.
Yet despite the good will, the two sides have very different ideas about what should happen next.
The Palestinians said that after years of delay, it's now time to start talking about the terms of Palestinian statehood, including final borders, removal of Israeli settlements and how to divide 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.
However, the U.S. has been prodding both sides to make progress, ahead of a Mideast peace conference in the U.S. in November. Olmert also appears eager to prop up the moderate Abbas, particularly after the Islamic militant Hamas seized Gaza by force in June, routing the forces loyal to the Palestinian president.
Olmert delivered his mixed message to Abbas on Monday, holding out hope for a resumption of negotiations, but saying it's still too early to start.
"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 said, standing next to Abbas and framed by the Israeli and Palestinian flags.
The two leaders have met several times so far this year, and Monday's session was meant to help them get ready for the November conference. 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 said.
In Gaza, Hamas dismissed the meeting as useless. Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, fired by Abbas as prime minister after the Gaza takeover, said experience has shown that peace talks bring no benefits.
Hamas could potentially spoil a peace deal. However, the current strategy of the U.S., Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership appears to be to try to reach a deal without Hamas, and include Gaza in an agreement if and when Hamas loses power there. In the West Bank, Hamas has been driven underground.
In the West Bank village of Shiyouk, near Hebron, Abbas' security forces arrested 15 Hamas militants during the weekend, residents said Monday. It was their first major crackdown in the area, a main West Bank power-base for Hamas.
Abbas and Olmert also talked about improving the daily life of Palestinians in the West Bank, including 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 Defense Ministry is to present a plan next week on easing travel restrictions.
The Israeli and Palestinian leaders had agreed earlier to try 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 Abbas' forces are still too weak to rein in militants and keep them from attacking Israel.
The Israeli daily Haaretz on Monday cited Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as telling Israeli officials the Palestinian security forces aren't ready yet to assume control. The report contradicted the official Palestinian position that the West Bank towns should be handed over quickly.
Palestinian Information Minister Riad Malki insisted Monday that Fayyad, in recent meetings with Israeli officials, "affirmed that the Palestinian government is ready to take control of all cities in the West Bank."
However, a senior Palestinian security official in the West Bank town of Bethlehem said his forces need more time and training.
Erekat, meanwhile, said Israel agreed in principle to permit the return of dozens of West Bank gunmen who were deported in 2002, following a violent standoff with Israeli troops at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto. Some had been sent to Gaza and others to Europe. Erekat said Israel has not given a date for their return, but agreed to allow back those who give up violence.
Monday's meeting was the first between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the West Bank since 2000, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak visited Abbas' predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat, in the city of Ramallah.
Olmert's motorcade was accompanied by two helicopters as it drove into Jericho, just a few hundred yards from a permanent Israeli army checkpoint. The two men embraced outside the hotel, with Olmert telling Abbas in English, "I'm delighted to see you." Chicken was served for lunch.
The venue was surrounded by symbols of a bygone era of optimism, as well as the failures of peace talks. Across the street from the Intercontinental Hotel is the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp, a reminder of a problem that has festered for decades.
The hotel was built in the late 1990s, when peace between Israelis and Palestinians appeared close. It is next to the Oasis Casino, which opened at the same time. The casino was hugely popular with Israeli gamblers until the Israeli military prevented all Israelis from entering West Bank cities at the start of the uprising. Palestinian militants later used the building for exchanges of fire with nearby Israeli troops.
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