Olmert, Abbas meet in Jerusalem

Updated: 2007-08-28 20:43

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held talks on Tuesday to prepare for a US-sponsored Middle East conference that Abbas cautioned could turn out to be pointless.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (R) stands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during their meeting in Jerusalem August 28, 2007, in this picture released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO). Olmert and Abbas held talks on Tuesday to prepare for a US-sponsored Middle East conference that Abbas cautioned could turn out to be pointless. [Reuters]

Olmert hosted Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists in fighting in June, at his official Jerusalem residence. They last met three weeks ago in the West Bank town of Jericho.

"They will be speaking about the development of Palestinian governing institutions, bolstering Abbas's government and issues concerning Israelis and Palestinians living side-by-side," said David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman.

On Palestinian TV on Monday, Abbas took aim at Israel's broadbrush approach to a conference Washington hopes can expedite Palestinian statehood despite the current split between the West Bank, where a Fatah-backed government holds sway, and Hamas-run Gaza.

Abbas said the international gathering, expected in November, would be a "waste of time" if it stuck to a "declaration of principles."

Israeli officials have used that phrase to describe what Olmert might offer in answer to calls for rapid, final talks in detail on establishing a Palestinian state.

Israeli and Palestinian officials emerged from the Jericho talks with differing comments on whether "fundamental" issues to be discussed soon should include "final-status" matters of borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Israeli political commentators said Olmert, weakened by the failings of his government and the military in last year's Lebanon war, was in no rush to tackle such issues in depth and risk splitting a cabinet that includes the far-right.

Low Public Expectations

Hamas called the Abbas-Olmert meeting another attempt to isolate it.

"The meeting will end in complete failure. Such meetings can never achieve anything as long as the Israeli occupation continues to deny the rights of our people and continues its aggression against them," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official.

In a sign of low public expectations in Israel, the country's most popular newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, relegated news of the Olmert-Abbas meeting to page eight.

Abbas said in his televised remarks that his talks with Olmert would again address ways of easing the effects of Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Palestinians accuse Olmert of failing to deliver on what they say were promises at earlier meetings to ease travel restrictions in the territory and scrap some of the checkpoints choking their movement between towns and villages.

Citing security concerns, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has balked at rapid removal of roadblocks -- a move that could bolster Abbas in his rivalry with Hamas.

Hamas is shunned by the West over the group's refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals.

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