Olmert, Abbas meet on Palestinian turf for first time

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, Aug. 6, during their first meeting in Palestinian territory, that he hopes to begin negotiations soon on establishing a Palestinian state.

Olmert became the first Israeli leader to visit a Palestinian town after seven years of bloody fighting, and Israeli and Palestinian security forces worked together to protect him, blocking all access to the five-star hotel in the biblical oasis of Jericho where the meeting took place.

Abbas, in turn, gained some stature by hosting Olmert, at least symbolically leveling the uneven relationship of occupier and occupied. Yet despite the good will, the two sides had very different ideas about what should happen next.

The Palestinians said that after years of delay, it’s time to start talking about the terms of Palestinian statehood, including final borders, removal of Israeli settlements and how to divide Jerusalem.

Israel wants to move ahead more slowly, in part because previous talks in 2000 collapsed over the so-called core issues and because Olmert may not be strong enough politically to make far-reaching concessions.

Olmert held out hope for a resumption of negotiations, but said it’s still too early to start. “I came here … hoping that this will lead us soon into negotiations about the creation of a Palestinian state,” Olmert said, standing next to Abbas and framed by the Israeli and Palestinian flags.

In Gaza, Hamas dismissed the meeting as useless. Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, fired by Abbas as prime minister after the Gaza takeover, said experience has shown that peace talks bring no benefits.

Abbas and Olmert also talked about improving the daily life of Palestinians in the West Bank, including removing some of the Israeli checkpoints set up after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000. The checkpoints are the main tool of Israeli control in the West Bank, but disrupt trade and often cause long delays for Palestinian motorists.

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders had agreed earlier to try to restore the situation to what it was before the outbreak of the uprising, including renewing Palestinian control over West Bank towns and cities.