JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, in the West Bank for the first time, and told him he wanted to restart negotiations soon on establishing a Palestinian state.
After months of resistance, Olmert expanded the scope of discussions with Abbas to include so-called “fundamental issues” that are key to ending the conflict.
But aides to Olmert and Abbas emerged with differing explanations of what “fundamental” meant and whether the leaders were discussing any of the main final-status issues of borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
The goal of the talks is to reach agreement on broad statehood “principles” by November, when the United States is expected to convene a Middle East conference, officials said.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said the focus on fundamental issues was positive because “ultimately it is going to be these two parties that are going to have to make the difficult decisions for peace”.
The two leaders met under heavy security at a resort hotel in Jericho, less than a kilometer (half a mile) from the last Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank city.
The choice of venue was meant to bolster Abbas, the Fatah leader who dismissed a Hamas-led government after the Islamist group seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.
Olmert became the first Israeli prime minister to visit a West Bank city since 2000, when a Palestinian uprising broke out. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said this showed a new level of trust between the sides.
“I came here in order to discuss with you the fundamental issues outstanding between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, hoping that this will lead us soon into negotiations about the creation of a Palestinian state,” Olmert said, with Abbas standing at his side, at the start of their talks.
“I want to do this sooner rather than later,” a spokesman for Olmert quoted him as telling Abbas on Palestinian statehood during the three-hour meeting.
Salam Fayyad, whom Abbas appointed prime minister after Gaza’s takeover, said the leaders were looking at “how to reach an agreement on an independent Palestinian state as quickly as possible”.
Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said neither side came to the talks with “a magic wand”. “What we need now is to have mechanisms for implementation, timelines,” he said.
U.N. special envoy to the Middle East Michael Williams said an agreement on principles could be the starting point for more serious negotiations after the U.S.-sponsored conference.
If progress is made, Western officials said the parties would appoint groups to tackle the most divisive issues.
Israeli and Palestinian officials said they believed U.S. President George W. Bush was seeking a breakthrough in his last 17 months in office to bolster a legacy damaged by Iraq.
But it is uncertain whether Olmert, whose popularity plummeted after last year’s inconclusive war in Lebanon, can make major concessions, particularly on Jewish settlements.
It is also uncertain how Abbas can deliver on any deal with Hamas Islamists in control of Gaza.
Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas-led government which Abbas sacked, called the Jericho meeting a public relations gimmick that would yield nothing.
In the latest Israeli gesture for Abbas, Olmert agreed in principle to allow the return to the West Bank of 13 Palestinian gunmen exiled to European countries after a standoff with the Israeli army in Bethlehem in 2002, Erekat said.
Palestinian officials said they also received assurances from Olmert that Israel would approve as early as next week the removal of some of the hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks and barriers that restrict Palestinian travel in the West Bank.
Abbas sought the release of more Palestinian prisoners but Olmert, who recently freed over 250 prisoners, was non-committal.
Israel made clear it remains wary of being drawn into final-status negotiations too soon. “If the process goes straight to the most difficult issues without the right groundwork...and you don’t reach an agreement, then the (Islamic fundamentalists) will say, ‘We told you so,’” Regev said.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza