JERUSALEM, (AP) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will demand Israel commit to a freeze on all settlement construction at a peace summit Thursday, the first since the two sides agreed to resume peace talks at a U.S.-sponsored conference last month.
On Wednesday, Abbas appealed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to press Israel on the construction issue, Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said. A State Department spokesman said Rice called both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and urged them to make progress toward an agreement.
Israel announced last month that it was building 307 new apartments in Har Homa, part of a ring of Jewish neighborhoods around east Jerusalem where about 180,000 Israelis live, and Palestinians are demanding that Israel halt the project.
Israel, which annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it along with the West Bank in 1967, does not accept demands to limit its construction there.
Abu Rdeneh said joint committees would begin discussing the main issues, “but there is a need to freeze the settlement activities in order to create the appropriate atmosphere to bring progress in the peace process.” He said Abbas will ask Olmert for “a clear cessation of settlement activities.”
The main issues — final borders, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites — have stymied years of peace efforts.
Thursday’s Olmert-Abbas meeting comes just two weeks before President Bush visits the region in an effort to build on momentum from the Annapolis summit.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that Israel is committed to trying for a peace treaty with the Palestinians in 2008, as decided at Annapolis.
“This is an ambitious goal. It will demand our tenacity, our determination and both sides coming to the table in the spirit of seriousness,” he said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said “this (construction) kills the credibility of the peace process.”
In the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik Wednesday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also criticized the Jerusalem construction plans in a meeting with the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who in turn pressed Egypt to do more to stop weapons smuggling into Gaza.
Israel is concerned that Gaza’s Hamas rulers are using tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border to smuggle ammunition and explosives to brace for an intensified round of fighting against Israel. Egypt angrily rejected the charges.
At the meeting, the two sides agreed to set up a joint security team to coordinate anti-smuggling operations, and Israel said it would consider supplying Egypt with technology and intelligence reports, Israeli security officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the contacts.
An influential U.S. senator visiting Israel said Wednesday that Egypt must crack down on the “intolerable” flow of the weapons into the Gaza Strip.
“And if they don’t, I think it would be appropriate to condition aid to them,” Sen. Arlen Specter, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters in Jerusalem.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni infuriated Cairo earlier this week by accusing its forces of doing a “terrible” job in securing the border, saying this stands in the way of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians because it strengthens Gaza extremists.
Following his visit, Barak said the crisis with Egypt was over.