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.

Abbas suggests early elections to resolve stand-off with Hamas, Gaza

Haaretz has reported that “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Hamas Islamists on Monday to agree to early elections and to open a ‘new page’ by ceding control of the Gaza Strip and holding reconciliation talks with his Fatah faction. Reviving talk of early Palestinian elections for the first time in several months, Abbas said in a speech to mark the anniversary of the founding of Fatah that any vote should be held in agreement with his Hamas rivals. ‘I renew the option of early elections … and I pledge that I will do my best to ensure this election will be the product of a deep and brotherly understanding’, Abbas said. ‘I urge all, Fatah and Hamas movements and all other Palestinian factions, to study this alternative and not to rush, as usual, to reject it’. Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June, prompting Abbas to sack a Hamas-led unity government and appoint a Fatah-backed administration in the West Bank. The rift helped pave the way for U.S.-backed talks with Israel. Abbas said after Hamas’s Gaza takeover he wanted to call early elections. But it has been several months since he talked publicly about holding a ballot although his aides have raised the possibility of snap parliamentary and presidential polls. Hamas, which won a Palestinian parliamentary vote in 2006, opposes holding elections before they are due in 2010, saying it would be unconstitutional”.

Haaretz added that Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said about Abbas’ speech that “It is full of incitement and words calling for divisions … There is no new initiative or practical step in this speech that can pave the road to start an immediate dialogue.”

The Haaretz report on Abbas’ speech on the occasion of the 1 January anniversary of the founding of Fatah is here.

YNet reported that “Abbas also took a newly conciliatory tone toward his Hamas rivals, calling for a ”new page’ in relations between the bitter enemies. ‘There is no way for any party here to be an alternative to the other, and there is no room for terms like coup or military takeover, but only for dialogue, dialogue, dialogue’, Abbas said, referring to the Islamic militant Hamas’ violent rout of his Fatah forces and takeover of the Gaza Strip in June. Abbas maintained his position that Hamas must restore power in Gaza to an elected government. But he urged reconciliation and called for new elections in an effort to end the suffering the Palestinian people have endured as a result of the takeover. ‘I renew my offer for early elections here, as a way out of the hell that was imposed on us’, Abbas said Monday”… The YNet report is here.

Abbas-Olmert "summit" on Israeli settlements set for Thursday

Haaretz says that a “summit” between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss Israeli settlement activities will be held on Thursday 27 December.

Haaretz reports that “Official sources in Jerusalem say the Har Homa imbroglio is the result of a decision by low-ranking government bureaucrats in the Housing Ministry. They say that Olmert was not informed of the decision in advance, but on the international front, these explanations do not seem to be enlisting much support. Moreover, the Har Homa affair exposed the differences in the perceptions that both parties adhere to. As far as Israel is concerned, the neighborhood is an integral part of unified Jerusalem, and not part of the territories. Construction at Har Homa is not subject to the same bureaucratic maze that any construction in the territories – be it a house, shack or electricity line – must endure before it is approved. The Palestinians and their supporters in the international community do not make that distinction. To them, any Israeli construction east of the Green Line, which was Israel’s border before the 1967 Six-Day War, is an illegal settlement. They treat construction in East Jerusalem much the same as they treat construction in the settlement blocs in the West Bank. To the Palestinians, construction in the territories is an obstacle to peace and an act that jeopardizes the negotiations. In addition, the Palestinians realize that Israel – which is expecting its first visit by U.S. President George W. Bush next month – is at a disadvantage internationally as far as settlements are concerned. Their objective is to dominate the headlines until Bush arrives. But the problem goes deeper than head-butting in the media. Israel has demanded that the Palestinians fulfill their duties according to the road map plan for peace, which the U.S. devised for both parties. But Israel has failed to meet its own obligations such as the evacuation of settlements, a total freeze on all construction in the territories and allowing the Palestinians to reopen their institutions in East Jerusalem”… The Haaretz report on Thursday’s Abbas-Olmert “summit” is here.