Ehud Olmert on Monday became the first Israeli prime minister to visit a Palestinian town since the outbreak of fighting seven years ago, meeting under heavy guard with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to talk about the creation of a Palestinian state.
Olmert, who began his visit by saying he came to discuss “fundamental issues,” took a security risk in coming to the biblical desert town, but also gave a symbolic boost to Abbas, who stands to gain stature by hosting Olmert on his own turf.
Accompanied by two helicopters, Olmert arrived by motorcade at a five-star hotel just a few hundred yards from a permanent Israeli army checkpoint on the outskirts of Jericho. The two men embraced outside the hotel, with Olmert telling Abbas in English, “I’m delighted to see you.”
The meeting ended three hours later, and Olmert’s convoy left Jericho.
The meeting was held in one of the West Bank’s most peaceful areas. However, it posed a challenge to Olmert’s security detail, since Abbas’ security forces in the West Bank are still weak. Abbas’ troops failed to prevent Hamas militants from seizing the Gaza Strip by force in June.
The meeting also tested renewed Israeli-Palestinian security coordination in the West Bank, following the fall of Gaza to Hamas. The Israeli army sealed checkpoints around Jericho, while Palestinian police blocked roads around the hotel.
The Abbas-Olmert meeting is one in a series of sessions, meant to prepare for an international Mideast conference in the U.S. in November.
However, both sides appear to have conflicting expectations.
The Palestinians hope the two leaders will sketch the outlines of a final peace deal, to be presented to the U.S. conference, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Monday.
The four core issues of a future peace deal are the final borders of a Palestinian state, a division of Jerusalem, a removal of Israeli settlements, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
“What they need to do is to establish the parameters for solving all these issues,” Erekat said. “Once the parameters are established, then it can be deferred to experts” for drafting.
However, Olmert suggested a slower pace.
“I came here in order to discuss with you the fundamental issues outstanding between Israel and the Palestinian Authority hoping that this will lead us soon into negotiations about the creation of a Palestinian state,” he said at the start of the talks, flanked by Israeli and Palestinian flags with Abbas standing beside him.
David Baker, an official in Olmert’s office, said the core issues would not be discussed now.
The leaders will discuss humanitarian aid to the Palestinians and Israeli security concerns, as well as the institutions of a future Palestinian state, Baker said.
Baker said the meeting is a signal of Israeli good will, adding that Olmert “intends for this to be a productive meeting to enable progress with the Palestinians.”
Both sides said the meeting will also deal with easing daily life in the West Bank, including the removal of some of the checkpoints erected after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000.
Abbas and Olmert previously agreed to try to restore the situation to what it was before the uprising, including returning full Palestinian control over West Bank towns and cities.
The Israeli daily Haaretz on Monday quoted Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as telling Israeli officials that his security forces aren’t ready yet to assume control of Palestinian towns. Fayyad’s aides were not immediately available for comment, but a senior Palestinian security official in the West Bank town of Bethlehem confirmed that assessment.
The Israeli military has been slow to dismantle roadblocks and ease control over Palestinian towns, citing concerns that Abbas’ forces are not strong enough to prevent attacks on Israelis.
Illustrating the issue, Olmert’s motorcade passed through one of the army’s checkpoints, at the entrance to Jericho. The checkpoint was erected after the outbreak of the uprising, and has controlled Palestinian traffic in and out of the town ever since, often causing long delays for motorists.
The Abbas-Olmert meeting place is surrounded by symbols of a bygone era of optimism, as well as the failures of peace talks. Across the street from the Intercontinental Hotel is the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp, a reminder of a problem that has festered for decades.
The hotel was built in the late 1990s, when peace between Israelis and Palestinians appeared close. The hotel is next to the Oasis Casino, which opened at the same time. The casino was hugely popular with Israeli gamblers until the Israeli military prevented all Israelis from entering West Bank cities at the start of the uprising. Palestinian militants later used the building for exchanges of fire with nearby Israeli troops.
The last meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Palestinian soil was in 2000, when then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak held talks with Abbas’ predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat, in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Palestinians in Jericho appeared to have low expectations from Monday’s meeting.
Mahmoud Santarisi, 35, said he would be pleased if the meeting led to the removal of one Israeli checkpoint and allowed him to visit Jerusalem, off-limits because of Israeli security restrictions.
“We hope for a good life, to be able to go to Jerusalem, to make money, and live in peace together. But Israel and the Americans will never give us a state,” Santarisi said.
Monday’s meeting is part of a recent flurry of peace efforts sparked by Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in June, after a five-day rout of Abbas’ Fatah movement. The Hamas victory led Abbas to form a moderate government in the West Bank which has received broad international backing, while Hamas remains largely isolated in Gaza.
In an effort to shore up Abbas, Israel has released 250 Palestinian prisoners, resumed the transfer of Palestinian tax money and granted amnesty to Fatah gunmen willing to put down their weapons.
The efforts have also seen a visit to the region by new international Mideast peace envoy Tony Blair, an unprecedented visit by an Arab League delegation to present an Arab peace plan to Israel, and the U.S. plans for a regional conference.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri criticized Abbas for meeting Olmert, saying the meeting was “aimed at beautifying the ugly image of the Israeli occupation before the world.”
“All meetings will be of no benefit to the Palestinian people,” Abu Zuhri said.