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Olmert, Abbas Broach Topic of Talks, Though Timing, Substance Remain Iffy

September 11, 2006
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Weary of war and desperate for a way out of their diplomatic deadlock, Israel and the Palestinians are talking peace once more. Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas both said over the weekend that they would be willing to hold their first summit in hope of restarting the long-stalled U.S.-led “road map” to coexistence. But the questions of when such negotiations might begin, and what will be discussed, remain unanswered.

The Israeli prime minister appears to have resigned himself to talks after the recent Lebanon conflict and protracted violence with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip shelved his plan to withdraw parts of the West Bank while annexing others.

“It’s time to revive the diplomatic process with the Palestinians and set a new horizon,” Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday.

Believing that the 2000 pullout from southern Lebanon and last year’s withdrawal from Gaza only emboldened Hezbollah, Hamas and other foes of the Jewish state, Olmert is now under pressure to engage Abbas and other perceived Palestinian moderates.

But Olmert’s best offer may still not meet the demands made by the Palestinian Authority president.

Abbas wants the entire West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, as well as Israel’s acceptance of the “right of return” claimed for millions of Palestinian refugees — nonstarters for Olmert, as they were for all his predecessors.

Even if Olmert were to offer more territory to the Palestinians, implementing such a handover would be difficult domestically.

Wracked by tensions with the center-left Labor Party that shares power with his centrist Kadima Party, Olmert is widely expected to try to boost his coalition base by courting right-wing factions that take a harder line on territorial concessions.

“The prime minister has been short on ideas since the Lebanon war ended,” said one anonymous Jerusalem source, citing widespread belief in Israel that the 34 days of fighting Hezbollah may have sapped the nation’s strategic advantages. “The thinking now is: Why not try talks with Abu Mazen? What is there to lose?”

For his part, Abbas, who is often called Abu Mazen, is not even offering to fulfill his core obligation, under the road map, to disarm Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups spearheading the last six years of violence. This failure has become a terminal problem since Hamas won Palestinian Authority elections and took power in March, prompting a financial and diplomatic embargo by Western nations.

Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, who visited Israel and the West Bank over the weekend before continuing to Lebanon, hinted that a solution might be reached if Abbas manages to talk Hamas into entering a unity government with his Fatah faction.

The assumption is that such a coalition would be guided by Fatah’s formal commitment to a two-state accord with Israel, with Hamas tacitly tagging along as a tactical compromise.

“I believe that such a government, based on the Quartet requirements, does offer the possibility of re-engagement by the international community,” Blair said, referring to the four major foreign patrons of the road map.

Yet Hamas, to the frustration of many mainstream Palestinians, shows no sign of yielding on its charter that calls for the destruction of Israel.

“Everyone knows what the final agreement will look like between the two parties. It is only Hamas that has so far failed to understand this, and they have to make a decision. We do not have time to waste,” said Elias Zananiri, a Palestinian political analyst. “This is now the time, the moment of truth for Hamas. They either accept the requirements of a peaceful settlement, or they have to step down.”

The crunch for Hamas may not come from the coalition talks, but rather, from Israel’s precondition that an Olmert-Abbas summit take place only after a soldier held hostage in Gaza goes free.

“The issue that is our first priority with the Palestinians naturally is the immediate release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit,” Olmert said Saturday after his meeting with Blair.

In media interviews, Abbas has tried to be optimistic about the prospect of Shalit going free.

Yet Hamas — some of whose gunmen took part in the June 25 abduction of Shalit — is adamant that Israel first free hundreds if not thousands of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the soldier. This option has been ruled out by Olmert as extortion.

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