Big Thaw – Abbas agrees to meet Olmert on 7 April

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in Amman this afternoon that he would meet Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, probably on 7 April.

About two weeks after that, Abbas will travel to Washington DC to meet U.S. President George W. Bush.

The Palestinian President froze contacts with Olmert after a violent Israeli offensive in Gaza at the end of February and the beginning of March. However, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Qurei’ (Abu Alaa) have continued to meet Israeli on a working level almost without interruption.

Both Abbas and Rice continued to express optimism that it would still be possible to reach an agreement with Israel in 2008 that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state.

However, a day after Israel pledged to remove 50 out of some 580 roadblocks and checkpoints (none of the really much more difficult manned checkpoints are included in that number, apparently), announcements were made about plans to build 1400 new homes in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that no new settlements would be built, and he implied that this activity was being done under –as if part of — the present Annapolis process.

The Associated Press reported that “Olmert insisted the building would not disrupt peace negotiations. ‘This is going on within the framework of negotiations, and the negotiations will continue to progress’, he said. At a U.S.-hosted peace conference in November, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to relaunch long-stalled talks and base negotiations on the 2003 ‘road map’ peace plan. The U.S.-backed proposal calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including in existing settlements. Because it annexed east Jerusalem after the 1967 war, Israel does not consider construction there to be settlement activity. The Palestinians and the international community do. Israel also maintains the right to build in West Bank settlements to account for ‘natural growth’ of the population there, even though the road map specifically bans such activity”. The full AP report can be read here .

Earlier Monday, Peace Now reported that at least 1700 new homes had been approved for the settlements since the Annapolis Conference on 27 November (presumably these are in addition to the 1400 new units announced later in the day)

After the announcement today of the new housing plans in the settlements, Rice said: “We continue to state America’s position that settlement activity should stop, that its expansion should stop — that it is indeed not consistent with ‘road map’ obligations”.

Palestinian President Abbas said, in his joint press conference with Rice, that “we hope that the American referee or judge will make sure that Israel will meet its obligation, in particularly, namely, to stop settlement activities, in particular in Jerusalem, and also to fix a comprehensive reciprocal or mutual truce and also to release the (inaudible – Palestinian?) detainees as well as to ask for the return of the (inaudible – refugees?) and to reopen the institutions in eastern Jerusalem and to reinstate the situation before 2000 – year 2000. And all of these are agreed under the Roadmap”.

Abbas also said:  “We do support all efforts exerted to remove the siege on Gaza, and these efforts are being exerted by Egypt in particular … I have asked Dr. Rice to continue in delivery of pharmaceuticals, water, electricity to our people in Gaza with practical steps in order to relieve the siege and the closures at the Palestinian internal affairs level.

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