Olmert, Abbas gird for talks

Times Staff Writer

A day after agreeing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a way to move toward peace with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert toured a stretch of the West Bank separation barrier Tuesday.

But his talking points demonstrated the gap in expectations Rice will face when she returns to the region next month for three-way talks with Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The barrier is reviled by Palestinians as a unilateral attempt by Israel to define its border with a future Palestinian state -- one that cuts them off from parts of the West Bank, which they claim in its entirety.


Speaking at the wall’s Ephraim Crossing, Olmert ignored the explosive issue of boundaries. Instead, he pressed Israeli inspectors to speed up scanning procedures so more cargo trucks can enter Israel from the West Bank.

“There is a large population whose quality of life will decide what kind of neighbors they will be,” the prime minister said.

During Rice’s visit to Israel and the West Bank, Abbas had asked the secretary of State to arrange the meeting so he could start talking to Olmert about the core issues of a final settlement. These include the delineation of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the claims of Palestinian refugees seeking to return to homes they abandoned in 1948 in what is now Israel.

A more modest agenda

In agreeing Monday to Rice’s proposal, however, Olmert made it clear that he has a more modest agenda. His aides said he views the encounter as part of a “pre-negotiation stage” in which the two sides build trust through initial steps, such as Israel’s easing of cargo restrictions, a halt to Palestinian rocket attacks and an exchange of prisoners.

“We’re still at the early stages of building the confidence necessary to open peace negotiations,” said Miri Eisin, the prime minister’s spokeswoman. “We’re not there yet, and we’re not going to be cutting corners.” As the two sides eye each other, there’s not much confidence to build on.

Israelis feel burned for having tried to negotiate a peace deal with the late Yasser Arafat, only to see those talks give way in 2000 to the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada.

Israel is distrustful of Abbas’ authority, which was weakened by the militant Hamas movement’s victory in parliamentary elections a year ago, and is loath to discuss territorial concessions with a leader it sees as unable to restrain large-scale violence against the Jewish state.

For his part, Abbas distrusts Israel’s motives for wanting to delay a resumption of full-scale peace talks.

Abbas’ aides consider Olmert an equally weak leader. Suffering a 14% approval rating after Israel’s inconclusive war in Lebanon last summer, Olmert is opposed by hawkish generals and beset with scandals, including Tuesday’s announcement that investigators are looking into his role in the sale of a state bank to two businessmen described as his friends.

The Palestinians say Olmert is avoiding a politically risky commitment to a peace deal to buy time to finish erecting the barrier and expand West Bank settlements. They see his government nibbling away at the territory that Israel eventually would hand over to the Palestinians.

Deals fall through

Small deals between the two men have come to naught, including Olmert’s December pledge to release $100 million in frozen funds to the Palestinian Authority and Abbas’ November commitment to prevent militant groups from firing rockets from the Gaza Strip.

Abbas “most likely will not accept another round of confidence-building with Olmert unless there are tangible results,” one of the Palestinian leader’s aides said Tuesday. “He wants to go beyond minor issues and sign an accord, along with the Israelis and the Americans, laying out a timetable for creating an independent Palestinian state.”

As a result, Rice confronts “a major disconnect between what the Palestinians are desperate for and what the Israelis are willing to discuss,” said Diana Buttu, a former legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority.

To complicate matters, the Palestinians are suspicious of the Bush administration’s intentions as it wades deeper into Mideast diplomacy. They point to its reluctance to censure Israel for West Bank settlement activity, such as the decision announced Monday, the day Rice met with Olmert, to add 44 housing units to Maale Adumim.

Under a 2003 plan known as the road map, Israeli settlement activity was supposed to be frozen and Palestinians were supposed to halt their attacks before advancing to substantive issues of a peace settlement.

But after sponsoring the plan, along with Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, the United States avoided significant diplomatic involvement as both sides repeatedly violated its prescriptions.

“If you look at the last six years, the only thing we see the Bush administration doing is trying to manage the conflict, not to resolve it,” Buttu said. “You don’t see any real pressure on Israel to live up to its agreements. Israel is allowed to use peace talks to buy time and is given carte blanche to torpedo any progress if it feels its security threatened.”

‘Confidence building’

Rice’s three-day visit, which ended Monday, marked the deepest U.S. engagement in the conflict in four years. But whether she can push both sides toward a resolution remains to be seen.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Rice said she hoped that her talks with Olmert and Abbas could meet the expectations of both men.

“Of course it’s going to be a step in confidence building,” she said, with a nod to the Israeli leader’s modest agenda. “That’s really the purpose here. When people have not talked about things in six years, it takes a little time to build some confidence.”

But Rice said she also agreed with Abbas that progress even on smaller issues requires “talking about a broader horizon.”

And Rice may have room to maneuver, said Mouin Rabbani, a senior Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit think tank based in Brussels.

“If the Americans are serious, they could put enough pressure on Abbas to get him to accept a Palestinian state within temporary borders,” he said. “That could be an attractive solution for Olmert. But it would postpone the hard issues that need to be resolved for a final peace treaty.”

Abbas on Sunday rejected such an idea, which Palestinian leaders fear would lock existing West Bank settlements into Israeli territory forever.

Rice appeared to side with him. If negotiations get that far, she said Tuesday, “it seems to me it may be more difficult to negotiate a provisional [Palestinian] state” than to move ahead to a final peace settlement.


Times staff writer Paul Richter in Kuwait City and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in the West Bank city of Ramallah contributed to this report.