JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.N. Middle East envoy Michael Williams called on Israel on Wednesday to take more far-reaching steps to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, saying he was concerned not enough was being done to sustain the momentum.
While he described Israel’s release of some 250 Palestinian prisoners and transfer of frozen tax funds to Abbas as “positive signs” following Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in June, Williams told reporters: “I’m concerned that we haven’t seen further steps. I’d like to see further steps.”
Williams suggested these steps include easing travel restrictions for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. He also urged Israel to release more prisoners and move forward on long-stalled plans to uproot Jewish outposts.
Senior Abbas aides say Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has yet to deliver on a promise he made on August 6 to approve the removal of some of the hundreds of roadblocks that impede Palestinian travel in the West Bank.
Olmert and Abbas, who are expected to meet again next week and in early September, are trying to hammer out an agreement on “principles” for establishing a Palestinian state.
The goal is to complete that agreement in time for a U.S.-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood expected to take place in November in the Washington, D.C. area, Israeli, Palestinian and Western officials said.
Williams said the next two meetings between Olmert and Abbas would be “very important” in determining what could come out of the November conference.
The European Union wants the conference to launch final-status negotiations over borders, the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, a senior EU diplomat said.
But Williams said it was “impossible to say at this juncture” whether Olmert and Abbas would be prepared to announce the start of full-blown negotiations at the conference.
A senior Western official said the parties might instead agree to appoint working groups to tackle the key issues.
“I think it is possible to make a deal,” Williams said.
But he added: “Any deal would have to be put to the Palestinian people as a whole and then it would be for them to decide in a referendum whether this is something they want to support or whether they don’t support it.”
Negotiations would not involve Hamas, which Israel and Western powers are trying to isolate for its refusal to recognize the Jewish state or renounce violence.
The Islamist group’s founding charter calls for Israel’s destruction but Hamas leaders have offered a long-term truce with Israel in return for a viable Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt have been closed to all but humanitarian supplies since Hamas’s takeover, prompting aid groups to warn of an approaching crisis.
Williams, who will leave his U.N. post in September to serve as Middle East envoy to the new British prime minister, said “meltdown is too strong” of a word to describe the economic situation in Gaza but that conditions were deteriorating.
“We do not see how that can be changed short of the opening of additional crossing points, and in particular Karni,” Williams said, referring to the commercial crossing that served as Gaza’s economic lifeline.
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