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Concerned that a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation could end fledgling Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic momentum, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received a commitment from Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas during their meeting in Jericho on Monday that Abbas will not talk with Hamas, "despite the pressure," sources in Olmert's office said.
Olmert, according to officials in his office, told Abbas he should not hold reconciliation talks with Hamas.
A number of Arab countries - including Egypt and Saudi Arabia - as well as Russia have been trying to bring the two sides to negotiations. Abbas's response, according to Israeli officials, was that he had no intention of renewing a dialogue with Hamas.
PA: Olmert promised more prisoner releases
Analysis: Nothing but a sideshow
Olmert met with Abbas for approximately three hours at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jericho, just north of the IDF checkpoint at the southern entrance to the town. This was the first meeting between an Israeli and Palestinian leader in the West Bank since Ehud Barak met with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah in 2000, before the increase in Palestinian violence. Olmert and Abbas met for the first 90 minutes alone, and then were joined by aides.
Olmert said after the private meeting that he and Abbas decided to "widen" the discussions to "advance understandings and reach a working model that will allow progress toward establishing a Palestinian state."
"The aim is to achieve US President George Bush's vision which both we and the Palestinians share of two states for two peoples, living in security and peace side by side, and we want to do this as soon as possible," he said.
Olmert, at the beginning of the talks, said: "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."
Israeli officials stressed, however, that when Olmert says "fundamental issues," he is referring to building accountable Palestinian governing institutions and an effective PA security apparatus, while the Palestinians believe the fundamental issues include discussions on the borders of the future Palestinian state, the Palestinian refugees, the status of settlements in the West Bank and the future of Jerusalem.
Olmert's motorcade drove into Jericho as two helicopters hovered overhead. The decision to meet in Jericho, despite the security risks, was taken as a symbolic gesture to Abbas, and to send a signal of parity to the Palestinians. Israeli officials described the atmosphere at the meeting, where a lunch was prepared by PA negotiator Saeb Erekat's wife, as "good" and "constructive."
"I'm delighted to see you," Olmert told Abbas as they embraced outside the hotel. Both Palestinian and Israeli flags were set up for the meeting.
According to Israeli officials, the two men agreed to cooperate in building an effective Palestinian security apparatus and governing institutions.
Abbas, according to sources in Olmert's office, called on the prime minister to release more security prisoners, beyond the 250 who were let go last month, and to allow the return of some 20 Palestinian gunmen who were deported in 2002 to Europe and the Gaza Strip after they holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
Olmert, again according to his office, said he would consider these requests. Abbas also asked him to remove checkpoints in the West Bank and to allow Palestinians more freedom of movement, something Olmert said he would discuss with the defense establishment.
The two leaders decided that humanitarian aid to Gaza would continue and that an economic council made up of Israeli and Palestinian businessmen would be established to consider ways of economic cooperation in the West Bank.
Israeli officials said that the two men did not discuss the situation in Gaza.
In a related development, President Shimon Peres told visiting Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stre on Monday that Norway needed to take a strong and clear stand against Hamas.
Norway irked Jerusalem in March, after the Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah was signed creating a unity government, by quickly announcing it was reestablishing relations with Hamas.
According to Peres's office, Stre said Norway had cut off all ties it had with Hamas during the period of the Palestinian unity government, and now had no contact with the Islamist organization.
"We have never given money to Hamas, and never will," he said.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni also related to Norway's willingness to deal with Hamas earlier in the year, saying in her meeting with Stre that Fatah-Hamas unity meant a diplomatic "freeze" and a "deterioration" in the situation.
"The Israelis and Palestinians need to decide," she said. "Our relations with Hamas are not a punishment for the past, but rather stems from the fact that it is preventing any chance or hope for the future."
Livni said the Arab world and the international community should support the current PA government and the steps Israel had taken to bolster it as part of a process of "normalization in stages."
Stre is visiting along with Pietro Fassino, the national secretary of Italy's Democrats of the Left Party, as cochairmen of the Socialist International's Mideast committee. The two are scheduled to hold meetings in Ramallah with Palestinian leaders on Tuesday.
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