Olmert and Abbas to meet Thursday: Israeli officials

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet on Thursday to try to salvage peace talks bogged down by a row over Jewish settlements, Israeli officials said.The two leaders had been expected to meet this week and Israeli officials told Reuters the meeting would take place on Thursday, though Olmert spokesman Mark Regev declined to confirm or deny the timing of the talks.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said U.S. intervention might be needed to overcome the impasse in the talks, launched a month ago at a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. U.S. President George W. Bush will visit the region in early January.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams reported no progress on Monday in a second round of talks since Olmert and Abbas agreed in Annapolis to try to reach a statehood agreement by the end of 2008.

The Palestinians have ruled out negotiating substantive issues such as borders, the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees until Israel commits itself to halting all settlement activity as called for under the stalled “road map” peace plan.

Israel has pressed the Palestinians to meet their own road map commitments to rein in militants in the occupied West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip as a condition for establishing a Palestinian state.

POSSIBLE ABBAS SUCCESSOR

Israel is considering easing criteria for freeing Palestinian prisoners, a move one Israeli official said could pave the way for the release of Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi, a possible successor to Abbas, the Fatah leader.

Easing restrictions on releasing prisoners who Israel says have “blood on their hands”, a reference to attacks against Israelis, was part of efforts to secure a swap deal with Hamas for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency and right-wing political parties oppose the changes, arguing they could benefit Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in June after routing Abbas’s secular Fatah forces.

The first round of peace talks after the Annapolis conference opened in discord on December 12, with Abbas demanding Israel drop plans to build 300 new homes in an area near Jerusalem known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Abu Ghneim.

The settlement plan has drawn rare criticism from the United States, as well as the European Union, which say it could undermine Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Just before Monday’s negotiating session, Israel’s Construction Ministry unveiled a proposal to build 500 homes in Har Homa and 240 in the Maale Adumim settlement near Jerusalem next year.

Palestinians see the building of Har Homa as the last rampart in a wall of settlements encircling Arab East Jerusalem, cutting it off from Bethlehem and the West Bank. Palestinians say it is a strategic move by Israel to pre-empt any possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the Palestinian capital.

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