JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, under pressure from the United States, has agreed to resume direct talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, U.S. officials said early today, in an effort to lend momentum to the search for Middle East peace.
After two days of diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Olmert gave up his refusal last week to hold direct talks with Abbas because of Olmert’s unhappiness with the Hamas-led Palestinian government.
Olmert and Abbas will start with discussions on limited topics, aimed at confidence building, and possibly move to topics that are more serious obstacles, officials said. The officials declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy.
The Israeli agreement is a small step, given that the two leaders met as recently as February, and there is risk that they could break off contacts again. But U.S. officials saw the move as a sign that Rice’s three-month-old initiative can push the peace effort forward, even if only slightly.
Olmert’s agreement came after late-night bargaining Monday amid signs that the politically weak prime minister was resisting U.S. attempts to begin discussing the fate of Palestinian refugees, the borders and East Jerusalem. Olmert, apparently fearing U.S. pressure to yield ground on some issues, also had doubts about Rice’s proposal to have the United States act as an intermediary in “parallel” talks with both sides, diplomats said.
Rice has been trying to set up a series of side-by-side discussions with Israeli and Palestinian officials in hopes of achieving a breakthrough before the end of the Bush administration in 20 months.
Speaking Monday morning during a news conference with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Olmert said, “Whether this can be described as a new initiative, I don’t know.”
Rice has been trying to add a potentially important dimension to the effort by enlisting Arab countries to discuss their 2002 peace initiative.
There were signs of progress on that front Monday, as foreign ministers of the Arab League, meeting in Riyadh in advance of a general meeting of the group Wednesday, said they planned to reaffirm their support for the initiative. The initiative promises to give Israel recognition and peace from its Arab neighbors if it surrenders land taken in the 1967 war and agrees to address the grievances of Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948.