JERUSALEM (AFP)- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas were to meet on Friday in an effort to solve major problems hampering progress towards solving the Middle East conflict.
The two were due to hold talks at Olmert’s official residence in Jerusalem for a second time this month, booked in for lunch-time discussions expected to last several hours, officials on both sides said.
But the meeting has been overshadowed by Israel’s approval on Thursday of power cuts against the Gaza Strip following Palestinian rocket fire, and mutual recriminations over stalemate in preparing for a US-sponsored peace meeting.
Violence too has shown little reprieve. Three Gaza gunmen were killed and two Israeli soldiers wounded in clashes early on Friday. The army said militants had fired 20 rockets and mortar shells towards Israel in the past 24 hours.
Abbas and Olmert will on Friday try to unblock the stalemate facing their negotiating teams in seeking to hammer out agreements meant to outline a solution to the Middle East conflict ahead of a meeting in the United States.
Olmert himself sought to lower expectations on Thursday over the US gathering, for which no date has been set, but which the Palestinians want to serve as a launchpad for reviving full-blown peace talks after a seven-year haitus.
“We don’t want to mislead anyone that Annapolis is the event that would conclude peace between us and the Palestinians. We are not there yet,” he told Jewish fundraisers in Jerusalem on Thursday.
Israel has accused the Palestinians of stalling efforts to reach an agreement ahead of the conference by trying to exceed agreed parameters, and that talks have not yet broached the actual content of such an accord.
“We are still stuck at talks on the rules of engagement because the Palestinians want to discuss other things that go beyond the mandate Abbas gave them,” a government official told AFP under cover of anonymity.
“There is no real progress on the concrete issues of what the document will look like and how to tackle the core issues,” the official added.
In response, the Palestinians accuse Israel of creating “obstacles and difficulties” by refusing to agree to a document that would define the basis of a permanent solution to the conflict with a timetabled implementation.
The Palestinians want the document to deal with the most intractable problems of the conflict such as borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem, while Israel favours a looser statement.
“The Israeli position is not contributing towards success at the planned international meeting,” said Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina.
Nevertheless the United States has been scrambling to try to secure a substantive conference. On a rare visit to the region, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley met Abbas and Olmert separately on Thursday.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is also returning to Israel and the occupied West Bank next week for her eighth visit this year on another mission to help both sides draft the joint document.
But complicating efforts further, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak approved electricity and fuel cuts against the Gaza Strip, where 1.5 million Palestinians live, in response to rocket attacks.
Abbas will tell Olmert that he opposes the sanctions on Gaza, where Hamas severed his effective control during an armed take over in mid-June.
Israel says the electricity and fuel cuts will be gradually and periodically introduced against Gaza, which has more than half its electricity supplied by the Jewish state, in an effort to pressurise militants into halting attacks.
Palestinians and human rights organisations charge that this amounts to collective punishment of civilians in breach of international law.