JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held a long-overdue summit Saturday, reviving hope that peace talks can resume after years of fighting, hostility and distrust.
The meeting took place at Olmert's official residence in Jerusalem, the first substantial talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in 22 months. The meeting was announced by Olmert's office and a senior Abbas aide on short notice, following several days of intense preparations.
Both leaders are facing serious political problems at home, and a peace breakthrough could help both.
Abbas is locked in an increasingly bitter and violent showdown with the Islamic militant 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.
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.
Key issues on the agenda will be the release of tax rebates and other funds Israel collected for the Palestinians but froze after Hamas came to power. The two leaders will also discuss an easing of Israeli travel restrictions in the West Bank and the fate of an Israel soldier captured by Hamas-allied militants in June.
Palestinian officials have said in the past Abbas will not agree to a summit unless the outcome is agreed on ahead of time. It was not clear whether he got Israeli assurances on any of the issues.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said he hoped the meeting would help ease the suffering of the Palestinians and that Israel would release the frozen funds. However, Barhoum was skeptical. "We have never gotten results from such meetings in the past," he said.
Olmert and Abbas had met once briefly over breakfast in Jordan, 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.