Israel, Palestinian Leaders to Meet in First Talks Since Hamas Victory

Israeli leader Ehud Olmert plans to meet moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after visiting Washington, an Israeli official said Tuesday — a nod to Abbas' position that Israeli-Palestinian contacts need not be cut off because of the Hamas takeover of the Palestinian government.

The official said no date has been set for the summit, the first since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January. Israel insists it won't talk to the militants sworn to its destruction, and it was not clear if using Abbas to bypass Hamas could lead to a resumption of Mideast peace talks.

The Israeli official spoke on condition of anonymity because firm plans have not been made. Israel has said it would not regard the Palestinian Authority as a two-headed entity, negotiating peace with Abbas while fighting Hamas. But Olmert never ruled out talks with Abbas, who unlike Hamas is eager to negotiate with Israel about creating a Palestinian state.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas was "ready to meet with Mr. Olmert as soon as he forms his government."

Olmert, whose new government is to be sworn in Thursday, plans to set Israel's border by 2010, completing construction of a separation barrier, evacuating tens of thousands of Jewish settlers and withdrawing from parts of the West Bank on the other side of the barrier. He said he would try to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians, but would take unilateral action if that fails.

Abbas, a moderate elected separately a year earlier, has been urging Israel to conduct peace talks through him, bypassing Hamas.

Hamas rejects the concept of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East. Some Hamas officials have indicated they would accept a temporary Israeli presence if Israel pulls out of all of the West Bank and allows millions of refugees to return to Israel — far from a starting point for talks acceptable to Israel.

In the past decade, Hamas has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel, killing hundreds, but the Islamic group has largely complied with a cease-fire announced in February 2005 by Abbas and then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at a summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik. There have been no summits since then.

Olmert's West Bank pullout plans are expected to top the agenda when he meets U.S. officials in Washington. That trip is expected to take place shortly after the new Israeli government is installed.

The planned West Bank pullout would follow Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer after 38 years of occupation. In recent weeks Gaza militants have fired daily barrages of homemade Qassam rockets at southern Israel from Gaza, and Israel has retaliated with artillery fire and air strikes.

Israel's military chief said in comments published Tuesday that he opposed reoccupying Gaza to try to stop the rocket fire.

Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz also warned Hamas that Israel would not "hold back" if it continued to support attacks on Israel.

"I am not pushing for the occupation of Gaza," Halutz told the Haaretz daily. "I am pushing in the opposite direction. ... I can't recall that in all the years of fighting when we were there that we succeeded in reducing the firing of Qassams to zero." The price Israel would pay for re-entering Gaza would be too high, he said.

Hamas, which has not been directly involved in rocket attacks, has said it would not arrest militants or take other steps to halt the fire. The Hamas government also defended a suicide bombing by the Islamic Jihad group in Tel Aviv last month that killed nine people.

Also Tuesday, an explosion destroyed a building inside a Palestinian national security compound in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya, killing two police officers and wounding seven others, Palestinian security officials said.

They said the blast was caused by unexploded Israeli shells stored in the building, pending transfer to another location, where they were to be disabled. The officials said it wasn't clear why the shells went off.