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(photo credit: GPO)
Family members of Hamas men held in Israeli prisons should be denied visitation rights until the Red Cross is allowed to visit kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas in Gaza since he was kidnapped in June 2006, Army Radio reported Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman as saying Monday evening.
Lieberman's comments came hours after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas that he would push for a prisoner release ahead of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. In his response to the meeting, the strategic affairs minister insisted that no prisoner release should be considered.
Meanwhile, a day after issuing a joint statement with Olmert declaring an interest in the success of the upcoming US-sponsored international meeting, Abbas is scheduled to fly to Saudi Arabia Tuesday and meet with the Saudi king, the person widely viewed as the key to ensuring the meeting's success.
Abbas is scheduled to brief Saudi leaders on his talks with Olmert during a meeting in Jidda on Tuesday, PA officials have told The Jerusalem Post.
They said Abbas's talks with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz will also focus on the upcoming conference and ways of formulating a joint Arab position ahead of it.
"The president [Abbas] wants Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to participate in the conference," said one official in Ramallah. "We don't want to be left alone at the conference. We want the Arabs to be there to support the Palestinians."
The Saudis and the Gulf States are being eagerly courted for the meeting by the US, in the hopes that their presence will give critical Arab support to the Israeli-Palestinian moves.
Another official said Abbas and Abdullah would also discuss the ongoing Hamas-Fatah crisis and ways of avoiding a further deterioration in the relations of the two parties.
"President Abbas will stress during the meeting his keenness on resuming dialogue with Hamas only after Hamas reverses the situation in the Gaza Strip and apologizes for its military coup," he said.
The head of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, on Monday proposed that he meet with Abbas in Saudi Arabia, Haniyeh's office said.
King Abdullah canceled a planned meeting with Abbas in Jordan several weeks ago in protest against the collapse of the Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah. The short-lived deal was reached earlier this year under the auspices of the Saudi royal family.
The Saudis are said to be angry with both Hamas and Fatah for failing to abide by the terms of the Mecca agreement, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian unity government and an end to internecine fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
While both PA and Israeli officials expressed satisfaction with the results of Monday's meeting, the Palestinians said the two sides agreed on the need to reach a deal at the US-sponsored Middle East peace conference, but Israeli officials said that while the meeting was important, "it was not the endgame."
"Everyone thinks that everything is going to done by November," an Israeli official said. "It is important - part of the ongoing process - but it is not instead of, and it is not an endgame in itself."
A senior aide to Abbas said the Palestinians were "satisfied" with Monday's meetings. But, he added, "We want to move forward more quickly. We are running out of time and there's a lot that needs to be discussed before the conference. We believe we can reach an agreement on a declaration of principles for a final settlement with Israel within weeks. The ball is in Israel's court and that's why we want to see concrete steps by Israel on the ground."
Monday's meeting, another in a series of ongoing meetings between the two being held about every other week, took place in Jerusalem. Like all the meetings, half of it was held with the leaders' staffs present, and the other half was held in private. This was the first meeting in which PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad was present.
Following the private tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte, Olmert and Fayad issued the following statement: "The two leaders declared that they are interested in contributing towards the success of the international meeting initiated by the US. They also reiterated their commitment to the solution of two states living side by side in peace and security, and decided to appoint teams from both sides in order to reach this goal."
To facilitate this process, said Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin, the two sides decided to set up negotiating teams that will work on issues involved in the two-state solution. She said Israel's team would be made up of representatives from the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry. The PA's team has not yet been named.
Israel's team is expected to be headed by Olmert's bureau chief, Yoram Turbowicz.
Israeli officials said Fayad's presence was significant at Monday's meeting because it signaled that the Palestinians realized that beyond talking about a two-state solution, it was necessary to talk specifically about governing in the PA.
Eisin said the two sides also agreed to appoint a series of joint ministerial committees between Israeli and PA ministers to discuss a wide range of issues, such as water and the environment.
According to Eisin, Olmert told Abbas he viewed free mobility in the West Bank as highly important, and that he was waiting for a Defense Ministry plan to be submitted regarding the lifting of roadblocks in the West Bank.
Olmert made similar pledges to Abbas in the last two meetings, and the Post has learned that there are serious disagreements between Olmert and the Defense Ministry about the lifting of roadblocks, with the defense establishment much more reluctant to do so.
Abbas once again brought up the issue of the release of Palestinian prisoners, and Olmert said he would bring to the cabinet in one of its upcoming sessions a proposal to release prisoners in honor of Ramadan, which begins Thursday.
Plans to bring a prisoner release proposal to the cabinet meeting on Sunday were scuttled at the last minute, the Post has learned, because of concern that following a week of Kassam rocket fire on the western Negev, this was politically not the time for such a proposal.
PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas and Olmert had agreed that Israel would allow Palestinian gunmen who were deported from Bethlehem to the Gaza Strip in 2002 to return home. The gunmen were deported after they barricaded themselves inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem for more than 40 days.
He said Israel and the PA had agreed to revive the work of joint ministerial committees to discuss day-to-day affairs of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We stressed the need to send humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip," Erekat said. "We also emphasized the importance of finding a way to allow the residents of the Gaza Strip to travel abroad."
Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu responded to the meeting by saying, "Every meeting between Olmert and Abbas results in more Israeli concessions. Olmert and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak have not learned a thing from their past mistakes of withdrawals and concessions without getting anything in return. Any land Israel abdicates will be taken over by Hamas and used as a base for Iran."
Meanwhile, Hamas described Monday's summit as a "failure." Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel was the only beneficiary from such meetings "because it continues to deny the rights of the Palestinians. These meetings are aimed at beautifying Israel's image and Abu Mazen [Abbas] must stop these meetings because they harm the interest of the Palestinians."
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.
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