Israeli Prime Minister goes to Egypt ahead of conference

Israel Materials 20 November 2007 15:44 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert flew to Egypt on Tuesday to try to drum up support from reluctant Arab states for an upcoming Mideast peace conference, after failing to bridge gaps in a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Arab states have said they wouldn't give full support to the gathering next week in Annapolis, Md., unless it tackles the tough issues that have blocked the establishment of a Palestinian state in past talks.

But Israel and the Palestinians have been unable to meet their goal of reaching a joint blueprint for peace talks for presentation at the conference. The deadlock is likely to influence the Arab League when it meets on Friday to decide whether to attend.

The conference is designed as a launching pad for formal negotiations, which broke down in violence seven years ago. Ahead of the meeting, its U.S. hosts have been pressuring both sides to fulfill initial obligations under a recently revived peace plan known as the road map.

In its first phase, the road map calls on Israel to freeze all construction in West Bank settlements, and requires the Palestinians to crack down on armed groups.

On Monday, Israel stopped short of declaring a total halt to settlement activity, while Palestinians to rein in gunmen were dealt a setback when gunmen affiliated with Abbas' Fatah movement killed an Israeli settler. The shooting late Monday occurred in an area seen as a test case for the Palestinians' ability to impose law and order in the West Bank.

The same group also claimed responsibility for a failed infiltration attempt into southern Israel from Gaza in which two militants were killed by Israeli troops. Gaza is controlled by the Hamas militant group and Abbas wields little control in the area, even over militants who support him.

At a morning meeting with President Hosni Mubarak at the resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Olmert was expected to seek the Egyptian leader's help in rallying Arab support for the summit.

International Mideast envoy Tony Blair was expected in Sharm el-Sheik on Wednesday for further discussions with Mubarak, said Matt Doyle, a spokesman for the former British leader.

Abbas is set to brief Arab League ministers on Friday before they decide their strategy on the conference called by President Bush.

On Monday, Olmert and Abbas had what an Abbas aide described as a difficult meeting, reflecting differences over all the main issues - final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees from the war that followed Israel's 1948 creation and Jewish West Bank settlements.

These differences have prevented agreement on a joint pre-conference document, much as they have scuttled decades of peace efforts.

In an attempt to soften the atmosphere, Israel's Cabinet agreed earlier Monday to free 441 of more than 9,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. The gesture fell short of Palestinian demands for the release of 2,000 inmates, including those who have served long sentences.

The key dispute between the two sides Monday was over Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank.

Palestinian officials want a total settlement freeze before the Annapolis conference.

"There is no compromise over the cessation of settlement activities," Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said Monday, before the Abbas-Olmert meeting.

Olmert told his Cabinet that Israel would not build any more settlements in the West Bank, but said expansion of existing settlements would continue.

Israel has not built new authorized settlements in nearly a decade, though settlers have set up dozens of small outposts, with tacit government support. Israel is supposed to dismantle dozens of these outposts as part of the road map, and Olmert reiterated Monday that his government would do so, but gave no timeline.

In Washington, the State Department welcomed the Israeli moves as "positive confidence-building measures."

Some 450,000 Israelis live in war-won areas the Palestinians seek for their state, including some 270,000 in 122 West Bank settlements and about 180,000 in east Jerusalem.

It was not clear whether the settler shot late Monday was killed by Palestinians driving in a passing vehicle or shooting from a hiding place near the road, the military said.

Separately, troops identified armed Palestinians trying to infiltrate Israel from northern Gaza near an Israeli farming community, the military said. Gaza Health Ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said the military notified him that two militants were killed in the ensuing gunbattle. A Fatah offshoot claimed responsibility.

A second clash broke out in southern Gaza near the security fence separating the strip from Israel. Israeli troops, fearing another infiltration attempt, opened fire and shot two men, the military said. Islamic Hamas militants and Palestinian medical sources said a Hamas gunman was killed and five others were wounded, including two in critical condition.

Israeli defense officials said troops and internal security were put on higher alert for possible attacks ahead of the Annapolis conference.