Israeli, Palestinian leaders meet after long lull

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shake hands prior to their meeting at the Israeli leader's residence in Jerusalem Monday.Israeli Government Press Office via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Monday held their first face-to-face talks in nearly two months in a bid to get peace efforts back on track, but they spent much of the three-hour meeting discussing Israeli settlements and the gaps on the contentious issue were wide, a Palestinian negotiator said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to resume more frequent talks, about every two weeks, and renewed a commitment to wrap up a peace deal by the end of the year.

However, the differences over Israeli settlements on disputed territory, military checkpoints in the West Bank, violence by Palestinian militants and Hamas control over the Gaza Strip make that date look increasingly unrealistic.

Under a U.S.-backed peace plan, Israel is required to freeze settlement expansion, but Olmert has said construction will continue in settlements Israel wants to keep in a final peace deal.

"The settlement activities occupied a large part of the negotiations," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who attended Monday's meeting. "The president (Abbas) showed documents, maps, and emphasized the necessity to stop the settlement expansion."

With U.S. backing, the two leaders have pledged to reach a final peace deal by the end of the year. But it remains unclear how much progress they have made. Negotiating teams have met dozens of times, and officials privately say that all key issues are under discussion.

But there have been few visible signs of change on the ground. Israel continues to build in Jewish settlements, it has done little to improve Palestinian living conditions in the West Bank and the Hamas militant group, which regularly attacks Israeli targets, remains firmly in control of the Gaza Strip.

Negotiating teams also met
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Monday's discussions included meetings between negotiating teams and a one-on-one session between Olmert and Abbas.

"Both leaders reiterated their commitment to the Annapolis process and to reaching a historic agreement by the end of the year," Regev said. "Both sides today raised concerns, but they agreed that the negotiations will go on."

He said the Palestinians discussed Israeli settlement construction and humanitarian issues in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel raised its security concerns and called on the Palestinians to rein in militants.

Erekat said Olmert also gave tentative approval to Abbas' request to grant West Bank residency to 10,000 Palestinians who now have expired visas.

In all, a total of 54,000 Palestinians would receive residency rights, and 12,000 requests were approved in the past, he said. Israel largely closed the option of immigration to the West Bank after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, and tens of thousands of Palestinians live in the West Bank in legal limbo.

Olmert and Abbas formally relaunched peace talks last November at a summit hosted by U.S. President Bush in Annapolis, Md. Their talks are supposed to be based on the "road map," a U.S.-backed peace plan that sets a series of stages meant to lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

As initial obligations, the road map calls on Israel to halt all settlement activity and for the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups. Neither side has met its obligations.

Post-Annapolis problems
Since the Annapolis conference, Israel has announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas claimed by the Palestinians for their future state. Abbas has repeatedly condemned the construction.

At the same time, Hamas militants have fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel from Gaza. Israel has warned that it will not carry out any peace agreement until Abbas regains control of Gaza. Hamas violently seized control of the coastal strip last June after routing Abbas' forces there.

Israel launched a broad offensive in Hamas-controlled Gaza in late February in response to especially heavy rocket fire. The offensive, which killed more than 120 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, prompted Abbas to suspend his regular biweekly meetings with Olmert. Monday's meeting was the first between the men since Feb. 19.

During a trip to the region late last month ,U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded Israel to begin lifting some of the hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks it maintains in the West Bank.

Israel says it has taken down one permanent checkpoint and removed some 50 unmanned roadblocks. But the Palestinians say more has to be done.

Israel says the travel restrictions are needed to deter Palestinian attackers. The Palestinians, and the international community, have said the roadblocks are excessive and stifling the Palestinian economy.