Rice to bring Abbas, Olmert together

RAMALLAH — A three-way meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to take place in the coming weeks.

Both Olmert, speaking to lawmakers in his Kadima Party in Jerusalem, and Rice, in Luxor for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, confirmed that a meeting was being planned, but neither confirmed a date.

“I will soon meet with Olmert and President Abbas to have discussions on the broad issues of [a political] horizon, so we can work on the roadmap and try to accelerate the roadmap to move to a Palestinian state,” Rice told reporters in Egypt, referring to the 2003 peace initiative proposed by the Quartet of international mediators — the US, EU, Russia and UN.

But the roadmap, which never got off the ground, received another blow yesterday when the Israeli housing ministry announced tenders for 44 new housing units in Israel’s largest West Bank settlement Maaleh Adumim.

Israeli officials yesterday said “natural growth” was the reason for continued construction in Maaleh Adumim, and Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin told the Associated Press that the Israeli government was “committed to the continuing natural growth of the settlements that are in the perimeter around Jerusalem”.

Settlements in occupied territory are illegal under international law, and the roadmap specifically called on Israel to end settlement expansions. A December 2006 report from the Israeli Peace Now movement found that 86 per cent of the land of Maaleh Adumim, a settlement with 30,000 inhabitants three kilometres east of Jerusalem, was demonstrably privately-owned Palestinian land, making building there illegal even under Israeli law, which otherwise uses a combination of Ottoman and Jordanian law to claim land in the West Bank.

Tel Aviv maintains that under any final peace accord Maaleh Adumim and other major West Bank settlements would be included in Israel.

Nevertheless, Olmert told lawmakers from his own Kadima Party that the roadmap “will continue to form the basis” of the peace process and said his last meeting with Abbas on December 23 had “caused a momentum and this momentum has to continue”.

At that meeting, Olmert promised Abbas that he would release $100 million in withheld Palestinian tax monies directly to the Palestinian presidency’s coffers and ease travel restrictions in the West Bank. Neither has so far happened.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat yesterday said he could not confirm whether Abbas would attend the three-way summit, but that “in principle” Palestinians would take part.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, meanwhile, warned that Rice was trying to “sedate” Palestinians with promises of less Israeli restrictions while “really serving Israel’s interests”.

“It seems obvious the Bush administration will not exert any pressures on Israel to offer any substantial concessions to the Palestinian people,” Haniyeh was quoted in the Israeli daily Haaretz as saying.

Haniyeh also criticised as “dangerous” Washington’s decision to provide Abbas with $86 million to boost security forces loyal to the presidency, saying it could only serve to deepen divisions between Abbas’ Fateh and his own Hamas faction.

While factional tensions have somewhat lessened in recent days after appeals for calm from Abbas and Haniyeh, they remain not far under the surface.

Yesterday, Fateh accused Hamas of having dug an extensive series of tunnels in the Gaza Strip that could have been used to kill its top leaders. One of the tunnels reportedly ran under the main road leading to the Erez Crossing in the northern Gaza Strip, a road used by Abbas and other Fateh leaders when coming to Gaza.

“This represents… a premeditated intention to carry out assassination attempts against leaders and symbols of Fateh,” Fateh spokesman Abdel Hakim Awwad said, specifying Abbas and Gaza strongman Mohammad Dahlan.

“Any attack on any of our leaders will turn the Palestinian situation into serious chaos and internal fighting, which will spare no one,” Awwad said.

On Sunday, Minister of Public Works and Housing Abdul Rahman Zeidan of Hamas told Al Ayyam newspaper that a plot to assassinate him had failed when the man hired had confessed to the plot.

Zeidan did not specifically accuse anyone of being behind the plot, except to say that “everyone knows who it is”, an apparent reference to Dahlan.

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