Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed Thursday to put aside a dispute over Israeli construction in a Jerusalem neighborhood and get down to work on a final peace agreement, according to participants in the two sides’ first meeting since relaunching peace talks at a U.S.-hosted Mideast summit last month.
The two-hour meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared to break an impasse that has clouded the renewed peacemaking, clearing the way for next month’s visit by President Bush.
“Beginning next week, final status negotiations will be resumed,” said Ahmed Qureia, the lead Palestinian negotiator.
At last month’s summit in Annapolis, Md., Olmert and Abbas agreed to relaunch peace talks after seven years of violence, setting a 2008 target for a final peace agreement. But attempts to begin negotiations have foundered over a new Israeli plan to build more than 300 new homes in a Jewish neighborhood of east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their future capital and have demanded the project be halted.
Israel, which captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast War and annexed it, has rejected ‘the demand.
‘Joint desire to move forward’
While the dispute wasn’t settled in Thursday’s meeting, the two sides agreed the matter should no longer hold up peacemaking, officials said. Both sides called the talks “positive.”
“There was a joint desire to move forward, to make progress,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.
Resolving the conflicting claims to Jerusalem is just one of the sensitive issues that negotiators must tackle during the coming year, along with the future of Israel’s West Bank settlements and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees with their millions of descendants.
Some 270,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to about 180,000 Israelis living in east Jerusalem neighborhoods.
The Palestinians want a halt to all Israeli construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, which also was captured in the 1967 war.
Israel committed to freeze all construction in West Bank settlements under the recently revived 2003 “road map” peace plan, but it has never honored that obligation.
During Thursday’s meeting, Olmert reiterated pledges not to build any new settlements or expand existing settlements beyond their current borders, an Israeli official said.
But he maintained the right to build in east Jerusalem and within the existing limits of major West Bank settlements to account for natural growth, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.
Qureia said Olmert’s pledges to limit settlement activity were “satisfactory,” though he also said the Palestinians were seeking U.S. intervention. At the Annapolis peace summit, Israel and the Palestinians said the U.S. would judge implementation of the road map.
In addition to Israeli pledges to halt settlement activity, the peace plan requires the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups that target Israelis.
Bush to visit region next month
Thursday’s meeting appeared to calm the atmosphere less than two weeks before Bush’s arrival. The American president is scheduled to visit the region on Jan. 8 for the first time in his seven-year tenure to build on momentum from the Annapolis conference.
Efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table gained traction after Islamic Hamas militants seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. Abbas, a moderate, expelled Hamas from government after the takeover, freeing him to conclude a peace agreement. Hamas is not party to the talks.
Before the Olmert-Abbas meeting began, Hamas pronounced the meeting a “waste of time.”
Violence continued alongside the talks.
On Thursday, five Palestinian militants were killed and 14 people were wounded in two Israeli attacks in Gaza. Palestinian medical officials said four civilians, including a 13-year-old boy, were among the wounded.
Three militants were killed in daylong fighting near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, medical officials and militant groups said. The army said it fired and hit three militants who launched shoulder-propelled grenades.
Two other militants were killed in an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza.