Mideast leaders meet in Egypt to bolster Abbas

Middle East leaders will meet in Egypt on Monday seeking to bolster Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and his new Western-backed cabinet after the bloody seizure of the Gaza Strip by Hamas.

But there is little hope of a major breakthrough in efforts to revive Middle East peace talks that have been stalled for about seven years.

Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians are attending the summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh after Islamist fighters from Hamas overran Fatah strongholds in Gaza, splitting the Palestinians into two separate entities.

Abbas will meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ahead of the summit, a Palestinian source said.

It will be their first meeting since Hamas, with which Abbas shared a fractious unity government for 15 months, took control of Gaza on June 15 after days of fierce gunbattles that left more than 110 people dead.

Abbas and Olmert last met on April 15 and a planned encounter in early June was cancelled.

Egypt will be holding two-way talks with each of the participants, and Jordan’s King Abullah is also expected to hold talks with Olmert.

On Sunday, Israel approved the release “in principle” of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax receipts to Abbas’s Pulestinian Authority that have been withheld since Hamas’s shock January 2006 election win.

But it played down hopes of a breakthrough on peace talks.

“Let’s wait and see the stabilisation of the new Palestinian government. Let’s take it one step at a time,” Olmert’s spokeswoman Miri Eisin said of Abbas’s emergency cabinet sworn in last weekend.

The withholding of tax receipts over the past 15 months while Hamas-led governments were in power — now totalling well over 600 million dollars — sparked a financial crisis for the Palestinian Authority leaving it largely unable to pay its own staff or contractors.

Abbas and the other Arab participants at the summit have been pressing for Israel to be generous in its support for the Palestinian leadership, as well as calling for a date for a resumption of peace talks.

On Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit called on Israel to allow aid to flow to the Gaza Strip, saying it was “not permissible to punish the Palestinian people.”

In a telephone conversation with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, he called for Israel to halt settlements and end the construction of the separation wall, according to a ministry statement.

Jordan’s King Abdullah held talks with Abbas in Amman on Sunday after which he “emphasised that the summit must be seized as an opportunity to formulate a clear timeline for a return to negotiations.”

Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said the Palestinian leader would insist on the “complete lifting of the siege and serious action to advance the peace process to create a Palestinian state.”

But Olmert told his ministers he would also expect undertakings from Abbas.

“I will present demands at the summit concerning security and the war against terrorism while at the same time stressing that we are ready to cooperate with the new government.”

Security cabinet member Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief, said further measures to boost Abbas should wait until he had proved he was serious about cooperating with Israel.

Egypt and Jordan, the only two countries to have signed a peace deal with Israel, believe that stability in the Palestinian territories will only come when peace is at hand.

“The aim (of the summit) is to move on the process itself. We are telling Israel: you have seen the results of your inaction. Despair will lead to more extremism and violence,” an Egyptian diplomatic source told AFP.

Egypt, which is battling to contain a powerful Islamist movement at home, and fears a spillover of unrest, has every incentive to maintain stability in Gaza.

It will continue to provide assistance to aid groups helping the territory’s 1.5 million residents but it must go hand-in-hand with a political solution to inter-Palestinian feuding, a diplomatic source said.

“Egypt will resume Palestinian inter-factional dialogue,” the source said. “But on the basis that there is only one authority and one government.”

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