JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed Saturday to release $100 million in frozen funds to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and ease West Bank travel restrictions — goodwill gestures that revived hopes for a resumption of peace talks after years of hostility and distrust.
Olmert made the promises in a two-hour meeting with Abbas at the Israeli leader's official residence, the first Israeli-Palestinian summit in 22 months.
The meeting is a "first step toward rebuilding mutual trust and fruitful cooperation," Olmert's office said in a statement. More meetings are planned, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
The meeting comes at a time when both men are facing serious political problems at home and stand to gain domestic support with a peace breakthrough.
Olmert and Abbas failed to reach agreement on a key issue — a prisoner swap — but decided to set up a committee to study it further. Part of the equation is not in Abbas' hands. Hamas-allied militants hold an Israeli soldier, and Olmert has said he will not release Palestinian prisoners until the soldier is freed.
The Israeli leader set a cordial atmosphere at the start of the meeting.
He emerged from his residence to greet Abbas, shaking hands and kissing the Palestinian leader on both cheeks. Abbas was then introduced to Olmert's wife Aliza, an artist known for her dovish views. The two leaders took seats opposite one another at a long table, set for a meal and covered by white cloth. Israeli and Palestinian flags served as table decorations.
A key achievement for Abbas is the release of $100 million in funds frozen by Israel when Hamas came to power earlier this year. In addition, Israel will transfer 35 million shekels to Palestinian-run hospitals in Jerusalem, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
In disbursing the money, Abbas' office will increasingly take on the role of a shadow government. Hamas has been the target of an international aid boycott, and has had difficulty paying the salaries of 165,000 civil servants.
Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel plans to transfer the money soon, but that it wants to make sure the funds don't reach Hamas.
Israel also agreed to remove several roadblocks in the West Bank, Erekat said. In addition, Olmert promised to meet a quota of 400 trucks moving through the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel.
Abbas is locked in an increasingly bitter and violent showdown with the Islamic militant group Hamas. Last week, he said he would seek early elections, a dramatic challenge to the 10-month-old Hamas government. His announcement intensified factional fighting between Abbas-allied security forces and Hamas gunmen, particularly in the Gaza Strip, and there are fears that Palestinians will descend into full-scale civil war.
Underscoring Abbas' difficulties, the exiled supreme leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, vowed Saturday that elections will not take place. "Is it possible to speak of early elections, and the elections (previous) are still fresh? Is it possible to violate the law and the constitution?" he told the Arab satellite TV station Al Jazeera. "Any step that violates the law will not be (allowed)."
Olmert, elected in March, has lost much of his popularity during the summer's war with Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas, which many in Israel believe ended inconclusively. The war also discredited Olmert's political program, a promise to withdraw from much of the West Bank and draw Israel's borders unilaterally by 2010, without waiting for a peace deal.
Olmert and Abbas had met once briefly over breakfast in Jordan in June, under the auspices of Jordan's King Abdullah II, but simply agreed to begin preparations on more substantive talks.
The last summit took place Feb. 8, 2005, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with Abbas in Egypt and announced a cease-fire.
In Gaza, meanwhile, factional fighting continued. In the southern Gaza town of Rafah, assailants fired on the car of a senior Palestinian security official, wounding him, a bodyguard and a girl.
The target, Hassan Jarbouh, is the deputy chief of the Rafah branch of the Preventive Security Service, which is loyal to Abbas. Preventive Security blamed Hamas for the attack.
Jarbouh, who was on his way to work, was in critical condition. His bodyguard and the girl, a bystander, suffered moderate wounds.
The deadly confrontations in Gaza began nearly two weeks ago, with a shooting ambush that killed the three young children of an Abbas-allied intelligence officer.
In all, 17 people have been killed and scores wounded in factional fighting, including heavy gun battles in densely populated neighborhoods, since the ambush on the young children.