Olmert pledges Gaza won't face crisis
( AP ) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised the Palestinian president Friday that Israel would not cause a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip despite his government's intention to cut power to the territory in hopes of curbing rocket attacks.
He made the pledge during a working lunch with Mahmoud Abbas at the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence, responding to Abbas' concern that electricity stoppages could hit hospitals and other essential services, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
The meeting was the latest in a series aimed at working out differences between the two ahead of a U.S.-sponsored peace conference. The men greeted one another with warm handshakes and broad smiles. Aides say Olmert and Abbas have good chemistry, but talks between them are so far showing little evidence of progress.
Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said the sides reaffirmed their commitment to the "road map" peace plan, which envisages an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel.
The plan was endorsed by the United States in 2003 but never moved past the declaratory stage, with each side blaming the other for failing to meet its commitments.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Israeli threat to cut power cast a shadow over talks, calling it "particularly provocative given that Palestinians and Israelis are meeting to negotiate an agreement on the core issues for ending the conflict between them."
The plan, approved Thursday by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is to cut electricity for an initial 15 minutes after a rocket attack, gradually increasing the length of outages if attacks continue. Gaza is ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas, while the more moderate Abbas runs the West Bank.
Palestinians in Gaza fired at least eight rockets and 10 mortar rounds into southern Israel Thursday and another five rockets on Friday, the military said. No damage or casualties were reported.
There was no disruption of power to Gaza, but Israeli forces continued operations against militants there. Palestinian officials said five gunmen were killed in firefights and an airstrike.
Erekat, who was at Friday's meeting, said Olmert and Abbas agreed to make a fresh push to implement the "road map" program and have the quartet of Mideast peacemakers - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - act as referee."There is a need to activate the role of the Quartet as mentioned in the road map, if we want to establish a credible peace process," Erekat said.
But on the key question of a joint statement of principles to guide the U.S.-sponsored conference, the two sides agreed only that their negotiating teams would meet again on the subject in the coming week.
A day earlier, Olmert sought to lower expectations for the meeting - expected to take place in Annapolis, Md., in November or December - saying it would not result in a final peace deal with the Palestinians and it might not take place at all.
On Friday, Erekat said no invitations for such a conference have been sent out.
The Palestinians want a statement addressing the core issues at the heart of the conflict with Israel: final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. They also want a timeline for creation of a Palestinian state. Israel says it is premature to address many of these issues and wants a more general document.
The United States wants Olmert and Abbas to present the joint declaration at the conference to pave the way for a full resumption of peace talks.
Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government in Gaza, said the meetings between Abbas and Olmert are meant to distract from Israeli attacks and sanctions against Gaza.
"These meetings have become a cover for the continued aggression against the Palestinian people," Haniyeh said after Friday prayers.
Also Friday, Hamas took responsibility for a shooting attack this week near a West Bank Jewish settlement in which an Israeli soldier was seriously wounded. It was an indication the group could be stepping up militant activity in the West Bank, where Abbas's Fatah movement has ruled since Hamas' bloody takeover of Gaza in June.