JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held talks on Palestinian statehood on Tuesday but discussed core issues only in broad terms, a senior Palestinian official said.
Abbas has been pressing for the highly contentious matters of borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees to be included in his discussions with Olmert ahead of a U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference expected in November. But Saeb Erekat, a senior Abbas adviser who attended the meeting with Olmert in Jerusalem, told reporters: “These talks did not reach the level of details.”
Abbas said on Monday the international gathering proposed by U.S. President George W. Bush would be a waste of time if Israel pressed ahead with plans to pursue only a broadbrush “declaration of principles”.
Israeli officials have used that phrase to describe what Olmert might offer in answer to calls for rapid, final talks in detail on establishing a Palestinian state.
David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman, said Abbas and Olmert held two hours of “one-on-one” talks and spoke about fundamental issues that would lead to the establishment of two states for two peoples. Baker declined to specify the subjects.
Olmert hosted Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists in fighting in June, at his official Jerusalem residence. They last met three weeks ago in the West Bank town of Jericho.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Olmert and Abbas separately in advance of the talks to “compare notes and talk a little bit about how things are going”, said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
Casey said the meeting “shows that there is goodwill on both sides to try and move forward on this process”. He added that Rice planned to travel to the region soon to try to push the peace process forward but he did not specify a date.
Israeli political commentators said Olmert, weakened by the failings of his government and the military in last year’s Lebanon war, was in no rush to take on “final-status” issues in depth and risk splitting a cabinet that includes the far right. “I do not want to belittle the negotiations but also I do not want to raise expectations,” Erekat said.
Olmert and Abbas, he said, would continue to “exert every effort” in pursuit of the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The United States hopes the Middle East conference can expedite Palestinian statehood despite the current split between the West Bank, where a Fatah-backed government holds sway, and Hamas-run Gaza.
Hamas called the Abbas-Olmert meeting another attempt to isolate it. “The meeting will end in complete failure. Such meetings can never achieve anything as long as the Israeli occupation continues to deny the rights of our people and continues its aggression against them,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official.
Hamas is shunned by the West over the group’s refusal to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals.
Abbas said before Tuesday’s meeting he would address ways of easing the effects of Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Palestinians accuse Olmert of failing to deliver on what they say were promises at earlier meetings to revise travel restrictions in the territory and scrap some of the checkpoints choking their movement between towns and villages. “The prime minister (told Abbas) he would soon present a plan being prepared by the Israeli security establishment which would allow for freedom of movement between the West Bank cities,” Baker said after Tuesday’s meeting.