- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met for their first formal summit yesterday, and Israel agreed to release tens of millions of dollars in customs duties and to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank.

The gestures were aimed at restarting moribund peace efforts and buttressing the Palestinian leader in his struggles with daily violence between gunmen in his Fatah party and the militant Islamist Hamas.

The surprise meeting took place at the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence. Television footage showed Mr. Olmert embracing Mr. Abbas and kissing the Palestinian leader on both cheeks. The prime minister’s wife, Aliza, an artist sympathetic to the peace movement within Israel, shook hands with Mr. Abbas.

The two men agreed to meet often and to remain in contact, Mr. Olmert’s office said afterward. “The two leaders believe that this meeting will be the first step in rebuilding trust and establishing a fruitful partnership.”

An aide to Mr. Abbas described the two-hour meeting yesterday evening as “good” and said it would be the first in a series of talks between the two leaders.

Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas met briefly in June over breakfast hosted by King Abdullah II in Jordan, but the detente was short-lived.

Several days later, Palestinian militants captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, triggering a months-long Israeli incursion in Gaza that left scores of Palestinians dead.

Yesterday marked the first substantive discussion between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in nearly two years.

A Hamas spokesman said before the meeting that Israeli-Palestinian summits have never produced tangible results.

The meeting came amid daily gun battles between armed militias linked to Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party and those of Islamic militants belonging to Hamas.

While Mr. Abbas is president of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas controls the prime ministership and the Palestinian legislature.

Israeli gestures are considered a linchpin to shoring up public support for Mr. Abbas, a moderate in the growing Fatah-Hamas confrontation that many fear could lead to civil war among Palestinians.

Some $100 million in taxes owed to the Palestinians is to be released, a badly needed injection of cash into an economy crippled by an international aid boycott of Hamas.

When Hamas came into power in March, Israel stopped transferring customs duties it had collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, and international aid to the Palestinians ceased.

Mr. Olmert’s office said that none of the unfrozen money would be made available to Hamas.

An Israeli-Palestinian truce in Gaza has largely held, except for a series of rocket launches by suspected Hamas militants last week.

Mr. Olmert has resisted pressure to end the cease-fire, but analysts assume that any serious casualties among Israelis from the rockets would put an end to the truce.

Still, the two leaders discussed expanding the truce to the West Bank.

Israel agreed to dismantle military roadblocks in the West Bank, easing a daily travel nuisance that slows commerce and worsens humanitarian conditions.

The two sides also are discussing a release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, though Israel is refusing to free anyone until Palestinian militants linked to Hamas release Cpl. Shalit after six months in captivity.

The Ha’aretz newspaper’s Web site reported that Israel also agreed to allow shipment of weapons to militias allied with Mr. Abbas and the deployment in Gaza of Jordanian-trained troops loyal to Fatah.

Such a move would mark the most active Israeli intervention to date in the Hamas-Fatah clashes.

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