Olmert and Abbas try to tackle obstacles in talks

By Matti Friedman, AP

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Friday promised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel would not cause a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, despite its declared intention to carry out limited power cuts to the strip in an attempt to curb Palestinian rocket attacks from the territory into southern Israel.

Olmert made the pledge over a two-hour working lunch with Abbas at the Israeli leader’s Jerusalem residence, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as the meeting was closed to media coverage.

Frustrated by near-daily rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled strip Defense Minister Ehud Barak Thursday approved cutting off electricity to the territory for steadily increasing periods every time rockets strike Israel, in the hope that Gaza residents would pressure militants to halt the attacks. He gave no timeline for implementing the measure.

Friday’s Olmert-Abbas meeting was one of a series aimed at hammering out differences between the two ahead of a U.S.-sponsored peace conference, but it was far from clear if the apparent good chemistry between the two leaders would yield concrete results.

Abbas arrived in Jerusalem in a long motorcade of sedans and SUV’s riding in from the West Bank. He and Olmert have recently begun meeting about every two weeks — a breakthrough after seven years of fighting and diplomatic paralysis.

Abbas walked into Olmert’s home, signed the guest book and shook hands warmly with his host. The two men smiled at each other and spoke quietly, and at one point 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.

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.

By all accounts, Olmert and Abbas have developed a good working relationship in recent months. However, Palestinians complain of excruciatingly slow progress in coming up with a joint document before the peace conference.

Palestinian officials said they hoped Abbas and Olmert would be able to overcome sharp differences over the content of a pre-conference statement.

The Palestinians are seeking an agreement addressing the core issues at the heart of the conflict: 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 wants a more general document, saying it is premature to address many of these issues.

The United States wants Olmert and Abbas to present the joint statement at the conference to pave the way for a full resumption of peace talks.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the 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.”