Building plan snags peace talks
In their first meeting since pledging a yearlong push for peace, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas remained at odds Thursday over an Israeli plan to build in East Jerusalem but vowed to continue their talks.
The two leaders, who made their pledge last month during a U.S.-sponsored conference, were seeking to get talks back on track after a pair of acrimonious meetings between their negotiating teams.
Aides to Olmert and Abbas described Thursday’s two-hour session as “positive,” despite the lingering disagreement over Israel’s plans to build 300 homes in a Jewish neighborhood it calls Har Homa.
The leaders promised to continue meeting regularly and reiterated their commitment to a negotiated agreement.
Olmert and Abbas were joined by the heads of the negotiating teams, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei, and other top aides.
Olmert promised that Israel would refrain from building new Jewish settlements, expanding existing ones or confiscating land for new construction, spokesman Mark Regev said.
Israel argues that Har Homa is part of Jerusalem and subject to Israeli law rather than negotiations under the peace process. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East War, but most of the world has not recognized that action.
Olmert’s vows fall short of meeting Palestinian demands. Abbas urged Olmert to halt all settlement activities to avoid undermining any future negotiated peace arrangement, said Saeb Erekat, an aide to the Palestinian leader.
Even though more fundamental issues, such as the borders of a future Palestinian state, remain to be negotiated, the parties have bogged down over security and settlement expansion -- an inauspicious start to President Bush’s push for the resumption of serious peace talks after a lull of nearly seven years.
Bush is to arrive in two weeks for meetings with both sides.
Palestinian officials objected bitterly this month to the announcement about the construction at Har Homa and were further angered by news of an Israeli budget proposal for more than 700 units in Har Homa and Maale Adumim, a West Bank settlement near Jerusalem.
The Palestinians say the construction would violate Israel’s commitment under the long-stalled peace plan known as the road map, which calls for a freeze on settlement activities, including natural growth of existing settlements.
Israeli officials, in turn, complain that the Palestinians have failed to meet their commitments under the peace plan to act against armed groups.
The two sides are seeking to put in place the first stage of the peace initiative while conducting negotiations aimed at reaching an overall accord by the end of 2008, shortly before Bush leaves office.
Few observers here hold out much hope because Olmert and Abbas are too politically weak to make risky concessions required for a lasting agreement.
An Israeli-Palestinian poll this week reflected that skepticism: Only 23% of Palestinians and 8% of Israelis said they believed their leaders could reach a negotiated peace settlement by the end of next year.
The poll was conducted by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
In other developments Thursday, Israeli forces killed at least six Palestinian militants in separate actions in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli troops killed three fighters -- two members of Islamic Jihad and a member of Hamas’ military wing -- during operations near the southern town of Khan Yunis. An Israeli army spokesman said troops fired on a group of gunmen who launched a rocket-propelled grenade at them.
In central Gaza, a pair of Israeli airstrikes killed an Islamic Jihad commander and two other members.
Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.