PM, Abbas aim for deal by end of '08

Olmert okays request to grant W. Bank residency to 10,000 Palestinians who now have expired visas.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will meet every two weeks until the November deadline for striking a deal, regardless of developments on the ground, Olmert and Abbas decided in a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office Monday. The two men pledged at the Annapolis summit in November 2007 to meet every two weeks in an effort to reach a deal by the November 4, 2008 deadline. But they had not met since February 19 due to Abbas's protests of IDF activity in the Gaza Strip during Operation Hot Winter. From now on, they intend to take the same approach as the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiation teams, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Authority prime minister Ahmed Qurei, who meet regularly regardless of the day's news. For instance, Livni and Qurei met the day of the suicide bombing in Dimona in January. In their sixth meeting since the Annapolis summit, Olmert and Abbas met for some three hours, including one hour in which they met alone, without their negotiating teams. The next steps in the process include Abbas's forthcoming visit to Washington, next week's visit to Israel by US National Security Adviser Steve Hadley and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returning to Israel after Pessah. Olmert and Livni complained that the Palestinians were not doing enough to fight terror in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But much of the meeting focused on what steps Israel could take to ease conditions for the Palestinians. "We discussed what we could do to improve the lives of the Palestinians so they would see that it was in their best interests to make a strategic choice in favor of the moderates against the extremists," a participant in the meeting said. Officials on both sides indicated that as in the past, the talks deteriorated into mutual accusations that each side was not doing its part under the road map diplomatic plan that is the basis of the negotiations. Hamas control of the Gaza Strip, Israeli settlement construction, West Bank checkpoints, terrorist violence and frequent armed clashes remained serious obstacles in the way of success for the talks. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said much of the meeting focused on the settlements. Abbas showed Olmert "documents and maps" in emphasizing the need to stop the construction. "Settlement expansion undermines the credibility of the peace process," Abbas told Olmert, according to Erekat. For his part, Olmert raised Israel's security concerns and demands that the Palestinians do more to rein in terrorists, spokesman Mark Regev said. "Both leaders reiterated their commitment to the Annapolis process and to reaching a historic agreement by the end of the year," Regev said. "Both sides today raised concerns, but they agreed that the negotiations will go on." The Palestinians said they were worried about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and Olmert said he would not let a humanitarian crisis develop there. Erekat said Olmert also gave tentative approval to Abbas's request to grant West Bank residency to 10,000 Palestinians who now have expired visas. In all, 54,000 Palestinians would receive residency rights, and 12,000 requests were approved in the past, he said. Israel largely closed the option of immigration to the West Bank after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, and tens of thousands of Palestinians live in the West Bank in legal limbo. Abbas also reportedly complained that out of the 50 checkpoints Defense Minister Ehud Barak vowed to dismantle in his meeting with Rice last week, some of the checkpoints never existed. At a Jerusalem Kadima event, Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On said it was in the best interests of the Palestinians to reach a deal with Israel. "Our first priority is our own security, but if the Palestinians do their part, they too will benefit from reaching an agreement with Israel," Bar-On said. "They are not going to kick us out, and we won't kick them out because it's not practical or morally correct." Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.