Saturday, October 27, 2007

PM: Israel won’t cause crisis in Gaza

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday that he would not cause a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, despite his government's declared intention to carry out power cuts to the territory in an attempt to curb Palestinian rocket attacks into southern Israel. He made the pledge over a two-hour working lunch with Abbas at the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence, responding to Abbas' concern that electricity stoppages could hit hospitals and other essential services, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

The meeting was the latest in a series aimed at hammering out differences between the two ahead of a US-sponsored peace conference. The two men greeted one another with warm handshakes and broad smiles and aides on both sides say they have good chemistry, but talks between them are so far showing little evidence of progress.
Arriving from his West Bank headquarters in a motorcade of sedans and SUVs Abbas strode into Olmert's heavily-fortified house and Olmert put his arm around Abbas' shoulders. Then they sat down for lunch at a table adorned with red and yellow flowers, with four Palestinians and four Israelis sitting on either side.
Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said the two sides reaffirmed their commitment to the "road map" peace plan, which envisages an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel.

The plan was endorsed by the United States in 2003 but never moved past the declaratory stage, with each side blaming the other for failing to meet its commitments.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who was at Fridays's meeting, said Olmert and Abbas agreed to make a fresh push to implement the program and have the so-called "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - act as referee.

"There is a need to activate the role of the Quartet as mentioned in the road map, if we want to establish a credible peace process," Erakat said.
But on the key question of a joint statement of principles to guide the conference, the two sides agreed only that their negotiating teams would meet again on the subject during the coming week.

A day earlier, Olmert sought to lower expectations for the regional meeting - expected to take place in Annapolis, Maryland in November or December - saying it would not result in a final peace deal with the Palestinians and it might not take place at all.

On Friday, Erekat said that no invitations for such a conference have been sent out yet.

The Palestinians want a statement addressing the core issues at the heart of the conflict with Israel: final borders, the status of disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. They also want a timeline for creation of a Palestinian state. Israel, saying it is premature to address many of these issues, wants a more general document. The United States wants Olmert and Abbas to present the joint declaration at the conference to pave the way for a full resumption of peace talks.
Erekat said the Israeli threat to cut power cast a shadow over the two sides' talks, calling Barak's decision "particularly provocative given that Palestinians and Israelis are meeting to negotiate an agreement on the core issues for ending the conflict between them."

The Israeli plan, approved by Defense Minister Ehud Barak Thursday, is to cut electricity for an initial 15 minutes after a rocket attack, gradually increasing the length of outages if the attacks continue.

Despite the threat, Palestinians fired at least eight rockets and 10 mortar rounds into southern Israel Thursday and another five rockets on Friday, the military said. No casualties were reported.

There was no disruption of power to Gaza but Israeli forces continued operations against operatives there on Friday and Palestinian officials said five gunmen were killed in various firefights and an airstrike.

In Gaza City, Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government, said the meetings between Abbas and Olmert are meant to distract from Israeli attacks and sanctions against Gaza. He said the Mideast conference would offer nothing to the Palestinians.
"These meetings have become a cover for the continued aggression against the Palestinian people," Haniyeh said after Friday prayers. "We warn against the dangers of falling into the traps of American-Israeli policies."

Also Friday, Hamas took responsibility for a shooting attack two days earlier near a West Bank Jewish settlement in which an Israeli soldier was seriously wounded - an indication the group could be stepping up its militant activity in the West Bank, where Abbas's Fatah movement has been ruling by itself since Hamas' bloody takeover of Gaza in June.

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