Israel pledges to ease life in West Bank amid diplomatic flurry

1308.jpgAn Israeli official on Tuesday promised “dramatic” action to improve life in the West Bank, and Palestinians expressed optimism that a high profile summit in Egypt a day earlier could lead to a resumption of long stalled peace talks.In Jerusalem, the “Quartet” of Mideast negotiators took a step to raise their profile during a sudden burst of diplomacy in the wake of the violent Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, picking outgoing British prime minister Tony Blair as their new envoy.

The flurry included a planned meeting between the king of Saudi Arabia and the president of Egypt, talks between the Israeli and Russian foreign ministers and consultations in Jordan.

The flame of optimism was kindled by one of the most traumatic events in recent years in the Palestinian areas — this month’s takeover of the Gaza Strip by the Islamic Hamas, quickly defeating the numerically superior but inept security branches loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh.

That led Abbas to dismiss the Hamas-Fateh government and replace it with moderates and loyalists — cuing Israel and the West to embark on rapid, highly visible diplomacy to boost Abbas in his struggle with the Islamists.

At the summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm  El Sheikh on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to free 250 Fateh prisoners, and there was talk of peace negotiations towards creation of a Palestinian state.

But the potential for continued stalemate persisted. There have been several such summits, followed by upbeat statements and hopes — but little change on the ground.

Israel has released prisoners before but failed to gain goodwill because of the Palestinian demand that all the detainees be freed. And most importantly, Israel doubts whether Abbas has the clout to negotiate a peace deal, since he has lost control of Gaza and is in a fight for his Fateh movement’s life in the West Bank. The summit showed “a realisation of the new situation on all sides,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

Olmert’s spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Israel plans to “dramatically improve access and movement” for Palestinians in the West Bank, likely meaning the removal of some of the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints in the area.

In a statement Tuesday, Olmert said he hoped improving the living conditions in the West Bank “would strengthen the moderates and lead to an effective diplomatic process”.

Abbas requested that the prisoner release include Marwan Barghouthi, a popular Fateh leader who is serving five life sentences in jail for involvement in attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.

But Eisin said Israel would not free prisoners with “blood on their hands”. That condition rules out Barghouthi’s release.

In a follow-up meeting Tuesday, representatives of the “Quartet” of Mideast negotiators gathered at the US consulate in Jerusalem. The Quartet is made up of the US UN, EU and Russia. An announcement of the appointment of Blair as the Quartet’s new envoy was planned for Wednesday, officials in Washington said.

Speaking to reporters later during a visit to the West Bank town of Ramallah, the US representative, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, would say only that the Jerusalem meeting “went well”. The Quartet is in charge of shepherding the 2004 “roadmap” peace plan that is supposed to lead in stages to a Palestinian state, as well as aid projects and agreements over issues like Gaza-Israel border crossings. Its achievements have been limited so far.

In Egypt, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was to meet the host of the Monday summit, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to discuss how to contain Hamas after its Gaza triumph. The two nations have differed in the past, but analysts said they share an interest in keeping the Islamists in check.

Responding to a call from Mubarak for the Palestinians to solve their internal problems peacefully, deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas expressed his group’s “preparedness to begin this dialogue, and immediately”. But Fateh officials have rejected dialogue with Hamas as long as the Islamists control Gaza.

Jordan was considering a reported Palestinian request to send the Badr Brigade, a Palestinian military unit based in Jordan, to the West Bank.

Israel said it was considering the request, but on Tuesday Palestinian officials denied Abbas asked for the Badr Brigade.

Late Tuesday, Abbas formalised an earlier policy by signing a decree outlawing armed groups that are not part of security forces. That means the Hamas force, but also the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, an offshoot of Abbas’ own Fateh movement.

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