- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian leaders will meet tomorrow for the second time in a month in an effort to keep their line of communications open, a Palestinian official said.

Both sides acknowledged yesterday that they expect no major breakthroughs ahead of the formation of a new Palestinian government.

The meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been planned as part of U.S.-backed efforts to prod the sides to return to peace talks. The talks follow an inconclusive meeting Feb. 19 attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Mr. Abbas has been trying to finalize a power-sharing agreement with Hamas, an Islamist militant group that calls for Israel’s destruction.

Israel says it does not want to delve into real issues of peace talks — like the borders of a future Palestinian state — unless the new government meets international demands to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept existing peace agreements.

The deal between Hamas and Mr. Abbas’ Fatah only says their unity government will “respect” peace deals. Mr. Abbas, a moderate who is eager to restart peace talks after a six-year freeze, says the power-sharing agreement is the best he can get from Hamas.

Mr. Abbas yesterday gave Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas two more weeks to put together the coalition, an extension that — though widely expected — underscored the difficulties the sides are having, largely over how the government will relate to Israel.

In confirming the Olmert-Abbas meeting tomorrow, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the talks “very important,” but added: “I’m not going to exaggerate expectations.” Mr. Abbas will also discuss with Mr. Olmert the possibility of extending a cease-fire reached in November from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, Mr. Erekat said.

The meeting will have an “open agenda,” Mr. Erekat said.

Mr. Olmert’s aides said the summit will focus on humanitarian issues for the Palestinians. Mr. Olmert’s spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said the meeting’s primary purpose was to “keep the line of communications open.”

Mr. Olmert will insist in the meeting that Mr. Abbas get Hamas to meet the international demands, Ms. Eisin said. Mr. Olmert also wants to press Mr. Abbas to stop Palestinian rocket fire at Israel from the Gaza Strip, she said.

The two leaders will talk about Mr. Abbas’ efforts to get militants affiliated with Hamas to release an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped in June in the Gaza Strip, Mr. Erekat said.

The Palestinian power-sharing deal was a last-ditch attempt to quell deadly violence between their supporters in the West Bank and Gaza.

The two sides remain divided over who will command the security forces. The deal also appears to fall short of international demands that the new government explicitly recognize Israel.

Mr. Abbas had hoped the deal would end international economic sanctions imposed on the outgoing Hamas-led government. Major donors, including the U.S. and European Union, are waiting for the government to be formed before making a decision on whether to restore aid.

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