updated 10/26/2007 6:26:22 AM ET 2007-10-26T10:26:22

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert prepared for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday, a day after saying an upcoming Middle East peace conference would not result in a final deal with the Palestinians and may not take place at all.

At the same time, Olmert’s government moved closer to a punishing regime of power cuts to the Gaza Strip in retaliation for rocket attacks.

Olmert and Abbas will meet at lunchtime Friday, Israeli government spokesman David Baker said, in the latest of a series of meetings leading up to the peace conference expected to be held in November or December. The two leaders are trying to draft a joint statement outlining a future peace agreement.

But Israel has tried to play down expectations of any dramatic progress at the conference, which is scheduled to take place in Annapolis, Md.

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.

Now continuing Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza and escalating Israeli responses threaten to derail the conference before it even happens.

Addressing Jewish fundraisers from Europe and North America in Jerusalem on Thursday, Olmert said he would discuss preparations for the summit when he met Abbas on Friday. But Olmert hinted there was still a chance the conference wouldn’t take place, and said that even if it did no peace agreement would be unveiled there.

“If all goes well, hopefully, we will meet in Annapolis,” he said. “(But) Annapolis is not made to be the event for the declaration of peace.”

Electricity cut
Frustrated by near-daily rocket attacks on Israel’s south from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave final approval to a new measure — cutting off electricity to the strip for longer periods every time rockets fall, hoping residents will pressure the militants to halt the barrages.

Saeb Erekat, a negotiator for the West Bank-based Fatah government, appealed for international intervention and called the decision to cut off power “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 is to cut electricity for 15 minutes after a rocket attack, gradually increasing the cutoff length if the barrages continue. Israeli officials would not say when that would begin.

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

Israel supplies about half of Gaza’s electricity through 12 power lines, and defense officials said the gradual cutoffs would not plunge Gaza into total darkness or target vital institutions like hospitals because the lines supplying them would not be closed.

Officials from Gaza’s electric company said that wouldn’t be possible, because each power line supplies a broad area and hospitals don’t have separate lines.

Collective punishment?
Palestinians and human rights groups denounced the measure as collective punishment.

One of the groups, Gisha, issued a statement warning that “playing with electricity is playing with fire.”

“Even a brief interruption in electricity threatens the safety and well-being of Gaza residents,” it said.

Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel had no choice but to take punitive measures.

“Should we tell them to continue firing rockets at the same power station that provides them with electricity and continue to bomb the water system that provides them with water?” he asked on Israel Radio.

One of Israel’s main electricity stations is outside Ashkelon, just six miles from Gaza. Several rockets have exploded nearby.

Electricity inside Gaza has been rationed through rolling blackouts since Israel bombed the strip’s main power station in 2006, after Hamas militants captured an Israeli soldier and killed two others in a cross-border raid. Many places have their own generators.

Inside Gaza, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian militants in separate operations early Friday. Islamic Jihad identified one as a member of the group, while the second gunman was claimed by Hamas.

The military said soldiers opened fire at gunmen in two incidents, hitting several of them. Two soldiers were lightly wounded, the military said. Troops killed three militants in Gaza on Thursday.

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