JERICHO, West Bank – In their first meeting on Palestinian soil, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday he hopes to launch negotiations “soon” on establishing a Palestinian state, his clearest promise yet to tackle a final peace deal.
The trappings of the three-hour session were perhaps as important as the content.
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.
The Palestinians said that after years of delay, it’s now 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.
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.
Hamas could potentially spoil a peace deal. However, the current strategy of the U.S., Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership appears to be to try to reach a deal without Hamas, and include Gaza in an agreement if and when Hamas loses power there. In the West Bank, Hamas has been driven underground.
Abbas and Olmert also talked about improving the daily life of Palestinians in the West Bank, including removing some of the Israeli checkpoints that were set up after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.
Israel’s Defense Ministry is to present a plan next week on easing travel restrictions.
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.