- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli and Palestinian leaders got together for surprise talks today, just days before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sets off for Washington to meet with U.S. officials.

An Israeli official said Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — who sat down together just a week ago — would “coordinate” peace moves before Abbas’ trip. He would not elaborate on what that meant, and spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting’s agenda was confidential.

Palestinian officials would not say why the two men were meeting again so soon, but said the unexpected get-together reflected scheduling problems, not a crisis.

Generally their talks are announced days in advance, but today’s meeting at Olmert’s residence in Jerusalem was confirmed only hours before it started — and in response to a query by the Associated Press.

U.S. mediators have urged Abbas and Olmert to meet twice a month, in addition to talks between their negotiating teams.

The White House has invited Abbas to Washington to try to give Mideast peace talks a boost. Abbas is due to meet with President Bush on April 23.

Israel and the Palestinians renewed negotiations in November at a U.S.-hosted conference in Annapolis, Maryland, ending a seven-year impasse. But the talks have been troubled by Palestinian militant attacks, by ongoing Israeli construction and military operations in the disputed West Bank, and by the fact that Islamic Hamas militants rule Gaza. Abbas controls only the West Bank.

The U.S. has been pressuring Israel to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank and give more authority to Palestinian security forces there, so Abbas can point to concrete benefits from peacemaking.

Ahead of the Abbas-Olmert meeting, Israel announced some minor gestures toward West Bank Palestinians.

Work began today on a new terminal meant to replace an older checkpoint near the city of Nablus, a change that will cut down the time it takes Palestinians to get through, Israeli defense officials said.

The Defense Ministry also raised the number of Palestinian merchants allowed to enter Israel to 1,500 from 1,000, issued 5,000 new work permits, and would allow the Palestinians to open 27 new police stations in territory officially under Israeli security control, they said.

The Palestinians have demanded more sweeping moves, saying the Israeli restrictions humiliate them and cripple their economy. Israel says its security measures are vital to prevent Palestinian attacks and that Abbas’ security forces are not yet ready to take control.

In Hamas-ruled Gaza, violence spiked last week after a monthlong lull. Militants attacked the Israeli border terminal that pipes the only fuel that reaches Gaza, killing two workers. Israel immediately shut down the terminal and launched raids that have killed 16 people since, including at least six civilians.

Palestinians have warned of a looming fuel shortage as a result of the terminal’s closure, and the director of the territory’s only power plant has said it would have to be shut down this week because its fuel would run out.

Israeli officials said today that the fuel terminal had been closed to allow authorities to investigate how the militants penetrated the compound. Zeev Boim, an Israeli Cabinet minister, said today it would be reopened within days and called the complaints from Hamas about a fuel crisis “absurd.”

“What audacity to carry out an attack on the fuel depot … and then talk about a humanitarian crisis,” Boim said.

Meanwhile, an explosion in a Gaza house killed three people and wounded seven today, Palestinian officials said. Gaza’s Hamas-controlled interior ministry said the blast was “internal,” meaning that it wasn’t caused by an Israeli attack, and residents said it was caused by explosives that went off prematurely.

Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of Gaza’s health ministry said the dead were adult men, but it was not immediately clear if they were militants or civilians.

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