Abbas, Olmert begin work on peace plan

/ Source: The Associated Press

Deeply divided on key issues, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday started talking about reaching a joint vision of Mideast peace — and putting it down on paper — in time for next month's U.S.-sponsored Mideast conference.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his official residence in Jerusalem. The two men shook hands and Olmert gave Abbas a brief tour of his sukka, a traditional hut in which Jews eat during the weeklong Sukkot holiday that ends Thursday.

Special holiday items were laid in the hut, including the frond of a date palm tree and an etrog, a citrus fruit. Abbas and his three advisers listened silently to the explanations. Later, Olmert and Abbas left their aides behind in a reception area, and held a private meeting in an adjacent office. The meeting lasted for just over two hours.

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, eight Palestinians were killed in new violence. Among the dead were four people killed while apparently trying to attack a security installation of the ruling Hamas Islamic group. Hamas accused the rival Fatah party of being behind the plot.

Olmert and Abbas have held a series of meetings in recent months aimed at reviving peace efforts. But with negotiating teams joining the leaders, Wednesday's meeting was expected to be the first working session on an outline agreement. The meeting got under way at noon (1000 GMT) at Olmert's official residence in Jerusalem.

"The prime minister looks forward to another chance for constructive dialogue with the Palestinian leader and he will make every effort to achieve progress in the time period before the upcoming international meeting," said David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman.

Vastly different visions
Olmert and Abbas already have offered vastly different visions of the final document. The Palestinians want a detailed agreement outlining a final peace settlement. Olmert is pushing for a vague declaration of "intent."

The sides appear to have deep differences on important issues, including the borders of a Palestinian state, control of disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinians have been drafting a proposed outline of a peace deal to present to Olmert. According to a copy obtained by The Associated Press earlier this week, the Palestinians are ready to swap some West Bank land with Israel and limit the number of Palestinian refugees returning to their homes in the Jewish state, but also demand the return of all areas of Jerusalem captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

Palestinian officials said the leaders have already exchanged ideas about a land swap. The officials said Abbas has offered to turn over some 2 percent of the West Bank in exchange for a similar amount of land from Israel. Olmert is seeking about 8 percent of the West Bank, where thousands of Jewish settlers live. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the media.

Israeli officials denied the claim, saying Olmert has not discussed specific figures on a land swap.

Blast ups Hamas, Fatah tensions
Negotiations have been complicated since the Hamas militant group seized control of the Gaza Strip in June, routing forces loyal to Abbas' Fatah movement. Abbas now heads a moderate pro-Western government in the West Bank but wields little control in Gaza.

In Gaza, Hamas police arrested about 20 Fatah supporters early Wednesday, driving up tensions between the bitter political rivals following a mysterious car explosion near a Hamas security compound on Tuesday.

The blast killed four people, including three Fatah activists and a bystander. Hamas accused Fatah of having tried to attack the security compound, saying explosives in the car apparently blew up prematurely.

"We take this criminal act very seriously and we are not going to allow anyone to gamble and play with the security of our people," said Ehab Ghussen, spokesman for the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry.

Hamas has accused Fatah of repeatedly trying to bomb security installations since the June takeover. But Tuesday's incident was the first time an attempted bombing has caused casualties.

Fatah said its activists were killed by Hamas activists who fired rocket propelled grenades at the vehicle.

About 1,400 people attended a funeral for the people killed in the blast. Participants waved yellow Fatah flags and fired guns into the air. There were no clashes with Hamas security forces, and the funeral ended peacefully.

In other violence:

  • A Palestinian was killed by by Israeli army fire during a raid in southern Gaza, Palestinian doctors said. It was not immediately known whether the 19-year-old man was a civilian or militant. The army would only say that the operation was against "terror infrastructure" in the area.
  • Nearby, a Hamas militant was killed when an RPG he was handling went off.
  • Elsewhere, a Hamas gunmen died of wounds in an explosion blamed on Israel. The Israeli army denied involvement. Also Wednesday, Hamas said a member was killed digging a tunnel near the Israeli border. Two others were hurt.