PM vows to continue talks with Abbas

Olmert stresses need for channels of communication following Mecca summit.

olmert spiffy 298 ap (photo credit: AP)
olmert spiffy 298 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Following Monday's inconclusive and what Israeli officials termed "frustrating" trilateral meeting, diplomatic efforts over the next few weeks will focus in part on getting Saudi Arabia to play a more significant role in the process, senior diplomatic officials said Monday. According to these officials, the Saudis could play a role in two key ways - by pressing Hamas to accept the international community's three conditions and by giving the Israeli public a view of a political horizon that it could expect if there were a reinvigorated diplomatic process. The Saudis, according to these officials, could do this by holding public or even private discussions with Israel, or by relaunching their diplomatic initiative of 2002. But the officials admitted that US leverage on the Saudis was limited, as the results of the Mecca agreement demonstrated. The US, like Israel, wanted the Saudis to press at the Mecca meeting for a Palestinian Authority government that would recognize Israel, forswear terrorism and accept previous Israel-Palestinian agreements. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, following a private meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas that lasted more than two hours, alluded to stepped-up efforts to get other regional players involved in the process. She said, during a brief 90-second statement, that Olmert and Abbas reiterated their desire for "American participation and leadership in facilitating efforts to overcome obstacles, rally regional and international support, and move forward toward peace." Israeli sources said the trilateral meeting highlighted the "differing opinions on major issues" between Israel and the PA. Olmert, the officials said, "clearly and openly" expressed his "frustration" that Abbas was not showing leadership and authority. Olmert, according to Israeli officials, said in the meeting that rather than showing leadership, Abbas bent over backwards to satisfy the extremists. To the Palestinian argument that the Mecca agreements were necessary to stop the inter-Palestinian fighting, Olmert said no one wanted to see Palestinian bloodshed, but this did not mean having to give in to the extremist positions. Explaining the Palestinian position, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters after the meeting, "One day in Gaza we had 27 Palestinians killed and 270 wounded. The agreement that was signed in Mecca was directed toward the priority that we had to stop the internal fighting, maintain our social fabric and end the lawlessness and chaos. We are representing a people who deserve our intention to stop the internal fighting, the chaos and the lawlessness. It is a priority for us." The trilateral meeting, which was planned before the Hamas-Fatah unity government agreement in Mecca, took place in Jerusalem's David Citadel Hotel, considered by the Palestinians more neutral ground than holding the summit at either Olmert's office or residence in Jerusalem. Rice, Olmert and Abbas met first for about an hour in a ballroom adorned with Israeli, Palestinian and US flags in the basement of the hotel, but then moved to Rice's suite in an upper floor because it was more comfortable. The meeting was held in English, although there was an Arabic interpreter on hand when needed. Following the first part of the summit, Rice delivered her brief statement, terming the meeting "useful and productive." "All three of us affirmed our commitment to a two-state solution," she said, "agreed that a Palestinian state cannot be born of violence and terror, and reiterated our acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the road map." Rice said Olmert and Abbas "discussed issues arising from the agreement for the formation of a Palestinian national unity government, and the position of the Quartet that any Palestinian Authority government must be committed to nonviolence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including regarding the road map." Rice said Olmert and Abbas agreed to meet again and that she would return to the region soon. While she gave no dates, it was not expected that either her return visit or another Abbas-Olmert meeting would take place before the Palestinians form their unity government. Israeli officials said discussion of the Mecca agreement, and how that would impact on the diplomatic process, dominated the meeting. Following Rice's statements, Olmert was joined for lunch by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz; Abbas by Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan, adviser Nabil Abu Rudeinah and Erekat; and Rice by her top advisers. At the lunch Olmert, according to Israeli officials, turned to Dahlan and said jokingly, but with serious intent, "Don't take a position in the new government, because if you do I won't meet with you." Israeli officials said that despite expressing his frustration about Abbas's "inability to deliver," Olmert made it clear that he was committed to continuing the dialogue with Abbas, whom he views as a moderate who wants to go forward. The dialogue with Abbas, Olmert said, would center on ways to alleviate the Palestinian humanitarian situation and try to implement the first stage of the road map, which is bringing about an end to terrorism. Unlike the last Olmert-Abbas meeting in December, this one ended without any Israeli gestures toward the Palestinians. The only operational decision was to resume a four-way Israeli, Egyptian, Palestinian, US forum to discuss security issues. Following the lunch meeting, Olmert went to the Knesset, where he met the Kadima faction members and briefed them on the meeting, vowing to continue speaking regularly with Abbas, while ruling out talks with PA officials who don't accept the Quartet's benchmarks. "We said we won't recognize any government or cooperate with it or its ministers if they don't accept those conditions," Olmert said. "We agreed [in the meeting] that we have to keep open a channel with the Palestinian Authority, and the only possible channel is with the president of the PA, whose power comes from the fact that he was elected, and not because of any agreement." Olmert stressed that he demanded in his meeting with Abbas the immediate release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. He also thanked the Americans for their efforts to "cope with the complex reality in which we find ourselves." Nabil Abu Rudeinah, a spokesman for Abbas, said the meeting was "important, but without results. It was a frank meeting, and it is the basis for future follow-up meetings with the Israelis and Americans. We clarified our positions." He said Rice and Olmert demanded the new unity government accept the Quartet's three conditions, but the Palestinian side tried to explain that the deal reached in Mecca is the best and closest the Palestinians can get to that. Abu Rudeinah said Abbas will go ahead with plans for the unity government, but is not optimistic about US recognition. Qadura Fares, a senior member of Fatah, said Monday that no matter what Olmert and Rice agreed upon, the Palestinians would continue to work on establishing a unity government based on the Mecca agreements. Fawzi Barhoum, a PA spokesman, said, "We had no hope for this meeting. The US is trying to destroy the Palestinian unity government." He said the formation of the new government will be completed before the allotted three to five weeks. In a cabinet meeting in Gaza City Monday, PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh expressed regret at the US position and called on the international community to recognize the new unity government. He said the Palestinians were united under the Mecca agreement. Shabtai Gold and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.