JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will present Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday with security amnesties designed to shore up his West Bank administration against rival Hamas Islamists.
Israel has described its decisions to free 250 low-level Palestinian prisoners, mostly from Abbas’s Fatah faction, and suspend kill-or-capture missions against 180 Fatah gunmen as goodwill gestures that could beget new peace talks with Abbas. But Israeli officials have more immediate hopes that Abbas would use a beefed-up Fatah to rein in Hamas after it seized the Gaza Strip last month, or at least to safeguard the new government he set up in the occupied West Bank.
“Abu Mazen, who now has nothing to lose and in the past had to pander to Hamas and didn’t want to fight them, is facing his ultimate test,” said Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, using Abbas’s nickname. “We hope that these actions will enable and empower him to fulfil his side of the deal,” Sheetrit told Israel’s Army Radio.
Olmert will host Abbas at his Jerusalem residence at 1 p.m. (1000 GMT), the latest in a series of summits held every few weeks and billed as confidence-building negotiations.
Hours after the meeting, U.S. President George W. Bush will make a speech in Washington that a senior aide said would reassert his support for Fatah leading the way to a Palestinian state coexisting with the Jewish state.
The aide said Bush will also speak about the role of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as new envoy for the Quartet of Middle East mediators — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — which convenes on Thursday.
With 1.5 million Palestinians under Hamas rule in Gaza and the Islamist group, which swept legislative elections last year, refusing to recognise Abbas’s dissolution of its government, the Western-favoured president needs to find a way forward.
Salam Fayyad, a reform-minded economist whom Abbas named prime minister to replace Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh, urged Israel to move beyond gestures toward talks on a two-state solution. “In order to rebuild the faith of the Palestinian and Israeli publics in the peace process, we must tackle the short term and long term simultaneously,” Fayyad said in remarks to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.
Olmert, weakened domestically by last year’s Lebanon war and citing the instability around Hamas, has so far balked at discussing final-status issues with Abbas such as the fate of Jerusalem, borders and Palestinian refugees.
Fayyad has pledged to crack down on West Bank militants but said success hinged on Israel stopping its security sweeps.
Many of the Fatah gunmen spared Israeli crackdowns are expected to enrol in Palestinian security forces. Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel-Razzak Yahya said the gunmen had signed an undertaking to suspend attacks against Israelis.
Olmert has also said he will ease the military’s curbs of Palestinian travel in the West Bank.
Abbas has requested permission to bring into the West Bank weapons and military vehicles and the so-called Badr Brigade, a Fatah force based in Jordan, to bolster security.
Haniyeh, who still considers himself prime minister and runs a Gazan administration, decried what he called “political bribes” aimed at increasing internal Palestinian divisions.