In a meeting with the Palestinian leader Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed releasing some prisoners, lifting some West Bank roadblocks and establishing a team to work on a broad agreement in advance of a U.S.-sponsored peace conference in November.
Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed in their three hours of talks in Jerusalem to set up a top-level team to discuss "ways of advancing the peace process and of reaching a two-state solution," said Olmert spokesman David Baker — the stated goal of the Palestinians, Israel and the U.S.
Later Monday, Abbas called the talks "successful" and said two working groups would be set up. He spoke after meeting Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado.
In July, President George W. Bush called for the Mideast peace conference, and the U.S. wants Israel and the Palestinians to make significant progress in their talks ahead of it. The Palestinians hope to achieve the outlines of a final peace deal and warn the conference would be a failure without such an announcement.
Olmert hopes to bolster Abbas and his Western-backed government in the West Bank after the Islamic Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip in June. Abbas' subsequent ouster of Hamas from the Palestinian government has freed the moderate leader to pursue peace efforts with Israel.
In Gaza, Hamas took another step to solidify its control on Monday, announcing plans to appoint new judges to replace the ones now in office. They refused to deal with the Hamas regime.
Also, Hamas forces late Monday arrested the production chief of Palestinian TV and confiscated a camera and some videotapes from his home, according to relatives and witnesses. Hamas has come under stiff criticism for harassing journalists.
Getting comfortable with each other
With their summit meetings becoming frequent, the two leaders appeared to be easing into a comfortable routine. With official photographers snapping pictures, Abbas and Olmert alternated smiles and serious expressions as they talked quietly at the entrance to Olmert's official Jerusalem residence. Journalists were kept far away, as they have been for all the Olmert-Abbas talks.
At the summit, Olmert offered gestures — releasing some Palestinian prisoners during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that begins this week and pressing Israel's defense establishment to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank, Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.
Abbas has long sought a release of Palestinian prisoners to shore up his public standing. Israel holds about 11,000 Palestinian prisoners, and their fate is an emotional issue in Palestinian society.
Abbas and Olmert also agreed to set up several professional teams to deal with subjects that must be settled before a final status agreement such as water, the environment, energy, economics and infrastructure, Eisin said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the two would meet again within two weeks.
Erekat also said Abbas asked Israel to remove 16 major West Bank checkpoints, but Olmert made no firm commitment.
Palestinians say the roadblocks are strangling their economy and severely disrupting daily life. Israel says they are necessary to prevent suicide bombings and other attacks.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad participated in the talks for the first time. Fayyad, an internationally respected economist, took over after Abbas dismissed the Hamas premier, Ismail Haniyeh.
Borders a key issue
Israeli media have reported that the sides have already begun tackling the central issues. An Olmert confidant, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, has offered a pullout from almost all of the West Bank in talks with Fayyad on a final-status peace deal, according to the reports. The Palestinians say there were no such talks.
The key issues are borders, which would require an Israeli pullback from at least parts of the West Bank, the dispute over control of Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees and their descendants from the 1948 Mideast war that followed Israel's creation.
Analysts question whether either Olmert or Abbas is strong enough politically to make the concessions that would be needed for agreements on those issues.
Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians demand a total pullout, but Israel insists on adjustments.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected in the region next week for talks to prepare for the November conference. Olmert and Abbas are scheduled to meet every two weeks leading up to the conference.
The "Quartet" of Mideast mediators — the U.S., EU, Russia and U.N. — is to convene in Washington later his month and meet Arab League representatives, who have been promoting an Arab plan for a comprehensive peace with Israel.
High public opinion of Abbas
The Monday summit came alongside some good news for Abbas — a poll showing that nearly three-quarters of Palestinians oppose the Hamas takeover of Gaza.
The survey also said that if presidential elections were held today, Abbas would win with 59 percent of the vote, compared with 36 percent for Haniyeh. Past surveys showed them virtually tied.
The poll was conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent think tank based in Ramallah. The agency questioned 1,270 Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem between Sept. 6-8, and the survey quoted a margin of error of 3 percentage points.