JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met for talks on Sunday at Washington’s behest that Olmert said would bypass some of the most contentious issues of the Middle East conflict.
But in an apparent nod towards an alternative track involving the Arab League and a 2002 Saudi-initiated peace plan, Olmert told his cabinet he was “willing to hold a dialogue with any grouping of Arab states about their ideas.”
Neither Olmert nor Abbas appears to be in a position to make bold moves towards a final peace deal. Olmert’s approval rating is in single digits and Abbas’s Fatah faction shares power with Hamas, an Islamist group that does not recognize Israel.
The talks, over lunch at Olmert’s Jerusalem residence, were the first between the two men since they agreed during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month to meet every two weeks.
“We should not expect this one meeting to perform miracles,” senior Abbas adviser Saeb Erekat said.
Six years after Israel and the Palestinians last held final-status negotiations, the United States is seeking to shape a “political horizon” for both sides while it tries to enlist Arab support for its own policies in Iraq and towards Iran.
Olmert aides said he was prepared to discuss the legal, economic and governmental structures of a future Palestinian state in the meeting with the moderate Abbas, who formed a unity administration with Hamas last month.
“We will not discuss the core issues of the conflict — the issue of (Palestinian) refugees, Jerusalem and borders,” Olmert said in broadcast remarks at the weekly cabinet meeting.
On the eve of the talks, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum dismissed the meeting as “useless” and a “photo opportunity.”
Abbas is also pushing for Olmert to hold talks based on the 2002 Arab peace initiative. An Arab League committee of 13 foreign ministers will meet in Cairo on Wednesday to talk about setting up several working groups to promote the plan.
Olmert repeated he saw “positive elements” in the proposal offering Israel relations with all Arab states if it withdrew from all land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, allowed a Palestinian state and reached an acceptable solution for Palestinian refugees.
Aides said on Saturday that Olmert, whose political future could hinge on the interim report later this month of an Israeli inquiry into last year’s inconclusive Lebanon war, was “leaning in favor” of contacts with an Arab League working group.
Olmert has for weeks resisted pressure from the United States, Egypt and others to commit to such talks, which some Israeli officials said could create positive momentum.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters on Saturday that one of the working groups might contact the Israelis, but he did not expect any negotiations.
David Baker, an official in Olmert’s office, said the prime minister would raise with Abbas “security concerns,” including the continued captivity of an Israeli soldier seized by Gaza militants last June, and humanitarian issues.
Israeli officials said there could be agreement between Olmert and Abbas on joint teams to work on the structure of a Palestinian state and the size of Palestinian security forces and what kind of weapons they would be assigned.