JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli President Shimon Peres hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for talks in his official residence on Tuesday, saying the unprecedented visit should help dispel doubts about Israel’s desire for peace.
Although the two men have met before, no Palestinian president had ever been inside Beit Hanasi, or President’s House, in Jerusalem, where Israel’s head of state routinely welcomes foreign dignitaries.
“I am full of confidence the problems will be resolved,” Peres said after a red-carpet greeting for Abbas, who is engaged in statehood negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that have shown little sign of progress.
“I feel both sides believe there is no alternative to peace,” Peres said.
As the pair met, a bulldozer went on a rampage in Jewish west Jerusalem in the second such attack this month. It rammed into cars before the driver was shot dead, police said.
A similar attack in Jerusalem killed three Israelis three weeks ago. The Palestinian bulldozer driver involved in the July 2 incident was shot dead by an off-duty soldier and police.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said before the meeting that Abbas would seek Peres’s help to halt “settlement expansion that is undermining peace talks” that began at a U.S.-hosted conference in Annapolis, Maryland last November.
In his remarks at Beit Hanasi, Abbas said: “Despite the passage of time, despite difficulties and obstacles, there is an end to this long conflict.”
Peres said he hoped to reassure Abbas that Israel remained committed to the U.S.-brokered negotiations despite a political crisis revolving around corruption allegations against Olmert that could lead to an early election.
“Although … things on our side are not the most stable, I want to make clear that the desire to achieve peace remains stable,” Peres, a former prime minister and Nobel peace prize laureate, told Israel Radio ahead of the meeting.
“Abu Mazen (Abbas) is the elected leader and he has stood up courageously against Hamas,” Peres said, referring to the Islamist movement that seized the Gaza Strip from Abbas’s Fatah faction in June 2007.
“He deserves to be invited in an honorable way to the president’s residence in Jerusalem,” Peres said.
A Palestinian flag and an Israeli flag provided a backdrop as both men posed for photographs inside. Such trappings are absent when Abbas and Olmert meet at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.
Peres’s duties are largely ceremonial, but the elder statesman has been outspoken in his support of the peace process with the Palestinians and of the need to bolster their economy through international aid and cooperation.
Olmert, who last saw Abbas in Paris two weeks ago, said after their talks in the French capital that Israel and the Palestinians have never been so close to a peace deal.
The United States hopes for a Palestinian statehood deal before President George W. Bush leaves office in January.
Olmert has been talking up peace prospects as he clings to office in the face of a police investigation into suspicions he illegally received money from a U.S. businessman who raises funds for various Israeli organizations.
Olmert and the businessman, Morris Talansky, have denied any wrongdoing. Olmert has said he would resign if indicted.