JERUSALEM – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas phoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Friday and urged him to resume peace talks quickly now that his government has assumed power.
Olmert's aides said a meeting with the moderate Abbas is possible, but ruled out negotiations as long as the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence.
With the Islamic militant Hamas refusing to budge, a speedy resumption of talks that broke down in 2000 appears unlikely.
Olmert reiterated Thursday, after his government was approved by parliament, that he is determined to set Israel's final borders even without negotiations, and that this would entail the dismantling of smaller Jewish settlements scattered across the West Bank. Olmert has said he intends to hold on to large settlements as part of his "consolidation" plan. "Partitioning the land is a lifeline for Zionism," he told parliament Thursday.
Olmert was to meet with U.S. leaders in Washington later this month to try to win backing for his West Bank plan. He has said he would not proceed without broad international support. U.S. officials have said final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state must be drawn in peace talks, but have not rejected Olmert's ideas outright.
Abbas called Olmert on Friday and urged him to resume negotiations, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
"President Abbas called Mr. Olmert, congratulated him on the formation of the new Cabinet and offered to resume the partnership between the two sides and to resume negotiations," said Erekat. Olmert told Abbas he would consider a meeting after his Washington trip, Erekat said, adding that no date has been set.
Israeli Cabinet Secretary Israel Maimon said a meeting with Abbas was possible, but that negotiations can only resume if Hamas moderates its positions. "As long as there is terror and as long as the terms (for moderation) are not being fulfilled, there cannot be talk about negotiations," Maimon told Israel Radio.
Abbas, elected separately, has been wrangling with the Hamas government over the division of powers, particularly over control of the security forces. At the same time, he has appealed to the West to restore aid payments to the Palestinians, frozen after the Hamas government took office in late March, two months after its election victory.
Hamas has been unable to pay 165,000 government employees, the backbone of the Palestinian labor force, since assuming power. Many Palestinians are scraping by on dwindling savings, loans and handouts.
In an attempt to avert a humanitarian crisis, the EU Commission is considering sending aid for specific purposes, such as health and education, directly to Abbas, thus bypassing the Hamas government, the Israeli Haaretz daily reported Friday. EU Commission officials in Jerusalem declined comment on the report.
The EU proposal came a week after French President Jacques Chirac said the World Bank should set up a fund to pay the salaries of the Palestinian government employees.
Also Friday, Israel's high court ruled that Israeli troops will have to remove three Jewish settler families from a Palestinian-owned home in the West Bank city of Hebron by Monday.
The court had initially ordered the squatters removed by Friday. However, army officials said they feared they would not be able to complete the task before the onset of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown Friday.
Israeli media reported that the army was expected to remove the squatters in the night from Sunday to Monday, and that some 1,000 soldiers and police were being mobilized for the mission.
Hebron is home to about 160,000 Palestinians and some 500 Jewish settlers living in heavily fortified enclaves in the downtown area. The Hebron settlers are among the most ultranationalist in the West Bank.
The forceful evacuation of the three families would be the first test of Israel's new defense minister, Amir Peretz, leader of the moderate Labor Party.