Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas to Meet in Jordan

Published June 20, 2006

| Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plan to sit down together for breakfast during an international conference in Jordan this week, officials said Tuesday, raising hopes that efforts to restart peace talks could gain some momentum.

Abbas is taking a break from intensive talks with the Hamas-led Palestinian government to attend the conference. Abbas has been trying to persuade the militant group to recognize Israel — a key condition demanded by Israel and the international community for restarting peace talks.

The meeting would be the first between the two since Olmert took office last month, and since Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections early this year.

A Jordanian government official said the two leaders were scheduled to attend a breakfast meeting at a conference of Nobel laureates Thursday hosted by Jordan's King Abdullah II in the tourist town of Petra.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said the leaders were expected at the breakfast gathering, though there were no immediate plans for an official, private meeting. The officials requested anonymity because plans were not finalized.

Abbas, the Fatah party leader who was elected separately last year, has been trying to coax Israel to bypass Hamas and restart long-stalled peace talks with him.

Olmert has said he would be willing to meet the moderate Palestinian leader, but that meaningful peace talks can't take place unless Hamas abandons its calls for Israel's destruction.

If peace efforts continue to founder, Olmert plans to pull Jewish settlers out of most of the West Bank, while holding on to major settlement blocs and east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians oppose the plan because Israel would still retain about 10 percent of the West Bank and east Jerusalem after the pullout. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem as part of a future state.

Abbas has been pressuring Hamas to accept a proposal that implicitly recognizes Israel in the hope of relaunching negotiations. Hamas has rejected the proposal, though talks continue.

A Hamas turnaround would represent a major change ideological shift for the group, which killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings between late 2000 and early 2005, when it declared a cease-fire.

Abbas plans to hold a national referendum on the proposal on July 26 if Hamas doesn't accept it. Hamas opposes the referendum.

While Abbas was pressing for peacemaking, residents of an Israeli town brought their community to a standstill for several hours on Tuesday, blocking roads and cutting municipal services, to protest the government's failure to halt Palestinian rocket fire from the nearby Gaza Strip.

Demonstrators parked a bulldozer and truck at the main entrance to the town of Sderot to block traffic from entering. Town workers walked off the job, and threatened to cut all electricity at night in protest. The school year was cut short earlier in the week.

Palestinian militants have launched the homemade rockets almost daily since Israel withdrew from Gaza last summer. Sderot, an impoverished border town of about 20,000 people, has been the main target.

While the crude rockets are inaccurate, they have killed six Sderot residents, damaged buildings and severely disrupted life in the town. Residents are woken almost every night by sirens alerting them to incoming rockets.

The army has been stumped by the primitive devices, which are little more than metal tubes filled with simple fuel and topped with a tiny explosive warhead.

Even as the demonstrations began, Palestinian militants fired at least three rockets from the northern Gaza Strip, about three miles away. No damage or injuries were reported.

In the West Bank, Abbas urged militant groups on Thursday to halt the rocket fire and honor a February 2005 truce with Israel.

"President Abbas holds any group and any faction that violates the truce fully responsible for the destruction and demolitions and victims that will result because of any imminent Israeli aggression," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to the president.

Abbas issued the plea after Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a resident of Sderot, suggested Israel would intensify its retaliatory attacks against rocket launchers.

In other developments, the Israeli Defense Ministry, further easing restrictions on Palestinians, has authorized an additional 3,000 Palestinian merchants to enter Israel, the military said Tuesday.

The new permits bring to 26,500 the total number of Palestinians authorized to enter Israel for work. Ten thousand are merchants and 16,500 are laborers. All are from the West Bank, except for 300 merchants from the Gaza Strip. Jobs in Israel are essential for many Palestinian families.

Peretz, head of the dovish Labor party, has been modifying defense policy with regard to the Palestinians since taking office in May.

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