JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States wants Israel to expand the scope of talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to begin tackling border and possibly other statehood issues, diplomats and Israeli officials said Tuesday.
They said it was unclear how far Olmert, who meets U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem on Wednesday, was prepared to go as part of Washington’s push to bolster Abbas after he lost control of Gaza to Hamas Islamists six weeks ago.
Rice will meet Abbas on Thursday in the West Bank city of Ramallah. A nearly $86 million U.S. security plan finalized ahead of her visit will provide funds to boost not only Abbas’s Presidential Guard but also his National Security Forces, viewed by many Palestinians as the equivalent of an army.
Olmert and Abbas are expected to meet next week, most likely in the West Bank city of Jericho.
Israeli officials said ahead of Rice’s visit that Olmert was prepared to discuss borders and other core issues in “general terms” that could lead to an “agreement of principles” for establishing a Palestinian state.
But Olmert has not agreed to full-fledged negotiations over the three main final status issues — borders, the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees — as proposed by Abbas.
Israeli officials said any commitment now could raise expectations and lead to further violence if talks break down.
Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said final-status issues should be negotiated as a package. “How can you separate borders from settlements? They are all interconnected. I don’t think that you can solve them by fragmenting them,” he said.
Western diplomats said a commitment by Olmert to begin discussing border issues could help Washington convince Arab states such as Saudi Arabia to take part in an international conference expected later this year.
Olmert wants Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that have no formal ties with the Jewish state to participate.
Despite recent peace overtures, tensions remain high between Israel and Syria one year after the war in Lebanon between Israel and Damascus-backed Hezbollah guerrillas.
Olmert on Tuesday sought to allay fears of a fresh conflict.
“I believe, with all my heart, that this summer and the coming autumn will not heat up... Our neighbors know well that we prefer to sit and discuss peace with them rather than to prove to them that our forces are greater than theirs,” he said.
A senior Israeli official called Rice’s visit “exploratory” to see whether Olmert is prepared to tackle core issues.
“They’re more than testing the waters. The Americans are trying to see how much they can expand the envelope of ‘political horizon’,” another senior Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Olmert’s office has long defined “political horizon” in limited terms, as the legal, economic and governmental structures of a future Palestinian state.
A Western diplomat involved in the deliberations said Washington was now eager to “expand the range of things discussed” between Olmert and Abbas. “It’s important that the Palestinians understand what the end result will be if they go down the right path,” the diplomat said.
Under U.S. pressure, Israel has taken some steps to bolster Abbas, from handing over frozen Palestinian tax funds to freeing more than 250 Palestinian prisoners.
Israel plans to make additional gestures in the coming week, including the removal of some of the roadblocks, checkpoints and barriers that restrict Palestinian travel in the West Bank.
Olmert would then consider transferring responsibility for some West Bank enclaves to Abbas’s forces, provided the Palestinians commit to doing more to rein in militants.
“Cosmetic steps in our arena have meaning. But there are also steps that the Palestinians have to take,” Israeli cabinet minister Avi Dichter told Channel 10 television.
Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch