Quartet inviting Olmert, Abbas to Cairo meeting

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — The “Quartet” of international Mideast mediators stepped into the void, signalling it would invite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for talks in Cairo, after a summit was called off at the last minute.

Olmert and Abbas were to meet Thursday in the West Bank town of Jericho, but Palestinians cancelled the summit, charging that Israel was rejecting all their proposals.

Shortly after that announcement, Palestinian Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr told a news conference that the Quartet was inviting the two leaders to Egypt for talks on June 25. This would signify increased involvement by the mediators — the US, EU, Russia and the UN.

Representatives of the 22-member Arab League, which is pushing a plan for comprehensive peace with Israel, also will attend, Abu Amr said. He said EU diplomats are already preparing the gathering.

Abu Amr said the Cairo talks were important because “it will make the Quartet see by itself who is responsible for hindering any of the issues being discussed”. US and Egyptian officials confirmed the planned gathering in Cairo. Olmert’s office said it has not yet received a formal invitation.

In a newspaper article published Wednesday, Olmert said he is ready to discuss the Arab League peace plan, but only if the Arabs are willing to be flexible. The peace plan, first proposed in 2002 and recently revived, offers a comprehensive peace deal with Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Israel has welcomed the plan, but said some aspects, such as an apparent call for resettling Palestinian refugees in Israel, are unacceptable.

“I am ready to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative in an open and sincere manner,” Olmert wrote in the British newspaper, The Guardian. “But the talks must be a discussion, not an ultimatum.” The article coincided with the 40th anniversary of the 1967 war, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim all three areas for an independent state.

Under prodding from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Olmert and Abbas agreed in March to meet every two weeks with the aim of moving beyond day-to-day issues and outlining a permanent peace deal.

However, the men have met only once since then, and any chances of reviving peace talks have been clouded by the resumption of fighting in Gaza.

A five-month truce collapsed last month when Hamas fighters began firing barrages of crude rockets into southern Israel. More than 60 Palestinians, most of them fighters, and two Israeli civilians, have been killed.

The renewed violence had been expected to top the agenda of Olmert’s meeting with Abbas.

Abbas has proposed a truce that would commit Gaza fighters to halt their rocket fire for a month, before expanding the cease-fire to the West Bank.

Hamas, which shares power with Abbas’ Fateh, and other groups have said a truce is out of the question as long as Israel keeps up its attacks and refuses to include the West Bank.

Israel will bear responsibility for refusing the truce offer, said Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas government spokesman.

“They will not achieve any victory,” he said. “They will not stop the resistance.” Israel has reacted coolly in light of the latest attacks in Gaza.

Palestinian officials said another key sticking point in the summit preparations was Israel’s refusal to release hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money it collected on behalf of the Palestinians.

Israel froze the payments last year after Hamas was elected to power, demanding the group accept international calls to renounce violence and recognise the Jewish state. Hamas rejects the conditions.

The cutoff in payments, along with international sanctions against Hamas, has left the Palestinian government unable to pay full salaries to tens of thousands of employees.

In an essay published in The Guardian, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said the climate with Israel is “catastrophic” and urged the West to engage his government.

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