JERUSALEM, (AP) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resumed face-to-face negotiations Monday, trying to push forward peace efforts after nearly two months marred by heavy Gaza Strip violence and new Israeli plans to expand settlements.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Olmert and Abbas agreed to meet every two weeks.
“Both leaders reiterated their commitment to the Annapolis process and to reaching a historic agreement by the end of the year,” Regev said.
He said the Palestinians discussed Israeli settlement construction and humanitarian issues in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel raised its security concerns and called on the Palestinians to rein in militants.
“Both sides today raised concerns, but they agreed that the negotiations will go on,” Regev said.
Negotiating teams also met during the three hours of meetings, he said.
Palestinian officials weren’t immediately available for comment.
But ahead of the meeting, negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas would review the status of negotiations with Olmert, push for a halt in settlement activity, seek an easing of roadblocks and other travel restrictions on West Bank Palestinians, and urge Israel to reach a cease-fire with Hamas.
With U.S. backing, the two men have pledged to reach a final peace deal by the end of the year. But it remains unclear how much progress they have made.
Negotiating teams have met dozens of times in recent months, and officials privately say that all key issues are under discussion. But there have been few visible signs of change on the ground. Israel continues to build in Jewish settlements, it has done little to improve Palestinian living conditions in the West Bank and the Hamas militant group, which regularly attacks Israeli targets, remains firmly in control of the Gaza Strip.
Olmert and Abbas formally relaunched peace talks last November at a summit hosted by President Bush in Annapolis, Md. Their talks are supposed to be based on the “road map,” a U.S.-backed peace plan that sets a series of stages meant to lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
As initial obligations, the road map calls on Israel to halt all settlement activity and for the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups.
But since the Annapolis conference, Israel has announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas claimed by the Palestinians for their future state. Abbas has repeatedly condemned the construction.
At the same time, Hamas militants have fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel from Gaza. Israel has warned that it will not carry out any peace agreement until Abbas regains control of Gaza. Hamas violently seized control of the coastal strip last June after routing Abbas’ forces there.
Israel launched a broad offensive in Gaza in late February in response to especially heavy rocket fire. The offensive, which killed more than 120 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, prompted Abbas to suspend his regular biweekly meetings with Olmert. Monday’s meeting was the first between the men since Feb. 19.
During a trip to the region late last month ,U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded Israel to begin lifting some of the hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks it maintains in the West Bank.
Israel says it has taken down one permanent checkpoint and removed some 50 unmanned roadblocks. But the Palestinians say more has to be done.
Israel says the travel restrictions are needed to deter Palestinian attackers. The Palestinians, and the international community, have said the roadblocks are excessive and stifling the Palestinian economy.