Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 April 2008
Issue No. 892
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

More hopeless talks

As Israel engages in nationwide defence drills, Abbas is told that settlement expansion will continue, reports Khaled Amayreh from Ramallah

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held another round of talks in West Jerusalem 7 April. Like numerous previous meetings, however, the latest encounter yielded no substantive results towards a breakthrough in Palestinian- Israeli peacemaking.

According to Israeli press sources, the two leaders were updated on "secret talks" being held by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei on final status issues such as Jerusalem, the right of return, Jewish settlements and the borders of a prospective Palestinian entity in the West Bank.

During the meeting, which lasted for three hours, Olmert and Abbas agreed to hold biweekly meetings and keep up the "secret talks channel" in the hope of reaching a peace agreement before the end of 2008.

Mark Regev, a senior Israeli spokesman, was quoted as saying that, "it was agreed that despite concerns that both parties have regarding issues on the ground, negotiations will continue with the goal of reaching a historic agreement by the end of the year."

Israeli sources said Olmert and Abbas "reviewed recent progress", an allusion to the purported easing by Israel of restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank that seriously disrupt Palestinian life and make impossible meaningful commerce. Israel, in response to American pressure, last week said it would remove some roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank. Palestinians and third- party observers say that only a small number of dirt piles have been pushed aside and that the main obstacles to Palestinian traffic remain intact.

According to Israeli and Palestinian sources, Abbas asked Olmert to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Olmert responded by demanding that Abbas stop the firing of homemade rockets against Israel from the Gaza Strip. When Abbas told Olmert that Gaza was not under his control, Olmert told him, rather tersely, "this is not my problem."

Abbas reportedly reminded Olmert that Israel's settlement expansion is in clear violation of the terms of the roadmap plan. Olmert told Abbas that expansion was consistent with President Bush's infamous letter to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004. In that letter, Bush assured Sharon that major Israeli settlements in the West Bank, especially in the Jerusalem region, would remain within Israel as part of a final-status solution with the Palestinians.

Earlier, Palestinian official Saeb Erekat voiced his frustration at the slow pace of talks and "the dwindling credibility of the entire peace process", saying that Israel has failed to "carry out even a single line of what it had agreed upon with regard to a host of issues, including settlement building, roadblocks and releasing Palestinian prisoners". "What is important is not what Israel says but what it does," Erekat added.

Prior to the latest Abbas-Olmert meeting, Israeli Foreign Minister Livni, who also participated in the meeting, said Israel had a number of "red lines" which she would cross under no circumstances. Israeli Army Radio, GaleTzahal, quoted Livni as saying that she hoped the international community understood that Israel wouldn't compromise on Jerusalem, the refugees and borders.

Hamas lambasted the latest encounter between Abbas and Olmert, calling it "a cover for further Judaising of Jerusalem and expansion of settlements". Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas's chief spokesman in the Gaza Strip, said: "It is lamentable indeed that Abbas has agreed to meet with this war criminal whose government oversaw the recent genocidal onslaught against the children of Gaza."

Another Hamas leader, Sheikh Hamed Al-Beitawi, a former imam at Al-Aqsa Mosque and who is being detained in Israel without charge or trial for "affiliation with an illegal political party", criticised Abbas. "We are surprised how you continue to hold these cordial meetings with Israeli leaders while you refuse to meet with your Palestinian brothers in Gaza. Your dialogue with your brothers is more important than your chummy chats with the enemy," Beitawi said.

"Strength comes through unity, and weakness comes through disunity. Hence we call on our people in Ramallah and Gaza to show national responsibility. Everyone must realise that if the Palestinian boat is safe, everyone will be safe, and if it sinks, everyone will perish," Beitawi added.

Meanwhile, Israel has continued sabre rattling this week, with the Israeli army and security forces placed on high alert. The Israeli government announced a nationwide drill aimed at preparing the country for attack from rockets and unconventional weapons. As part of the drill, known as Turning Point-2, sirens blared throughout Israel and school children and government employees ran to air raid shelters.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said, however, that the five-day exercise didn't mean that Israel was anticipating war in the near future. He said the drill should be seen as part of the country's response to lessons learned from the 2006 Lebanon war with Hizbullah. "The state of Israel has no interest in escalating the situation in the region." Barak said.

However, Benyamin Ben Elizer, a former defence minister, this week threatened to destroy Iran if the Islamic republic attacked Israel. "The Iranians won't rush to attack Israel, because they understand the significance such action would have and are well aware of our strength," said Ben Elizer, alluding to Israel's nuclear arsenal.

He added that, "in a future war, it will be much safer to live in [the northern Israeli towns] of Nahariya and Shlomi instead of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, since I expect that in the opening attack, hundreds of missiles will strike Israel. There will be no place in the country that is not within range of Syria and Hizbullah."

Some observers believe that the drill, in which civil defence and rescue services are trained to respond to simulated attacks, including mock chemical attacks, come in the context of Israeli and/or Israeli-American preparations to attack Iranian nuclear facilities before the end of George W Bush's presidential term.

Israel has been openly goading the Bush administration into waging war on Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear technology. Israeli officials predict that Iran's retaliation would come through Hizbullah and possibly Syria as well. Both Syria and Hizbullah are believed to possess missiles whose range covers all major Israeli population centres.

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