Olmert, Abbas to meet Wednesday to discuss peace talks

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert are to meet in Jerusalem Wednesday, their first parley since the Israeli leader announced his intention to quit his post after his Kadima party elects a new leader, reported dpa.

In announcing his decision last week, Olmert nonetheless pledged to continue with the peace process with the Palestinians, and the talks Wednesday are expected to focus on ways of moving the negotiations forward.

Olmert and Abbas pledged late last year to try and reach a peace deal by the end of 2008. The sides resumed negotiations after a seven-year hiatus at the turn of the year, but the talks are being held amid a virtual media blackout, with conflicting accounts on the progress being made.

Reports in Israel Tuesday said Abbas plans to ask Israel to release Palestinian prisoners held in jail since before the signing of the 1993-94 Oslo interim peace accords.

Should Olmert agree, however he could face immense pressure from his right-wing opposition, since many of the prisoners were jailed for attacks in which Israelis were killed.

But for Abbas, on the other hand, securing the release of prisoners, especially those jailed for a long time, would be a definite triumph which could raise his standing in the eyes of his electorate.

The release of Palestinian prisoners, an emotional one on both sides of the divide, is also a main Palestinian aim; militant groups in the Gaza Strip snatched an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid two years ago with the aim of using him as a bargaining chip to secure the release of detainees.

Egyptian-sponsored negotiations for the release of Israeli army corporal Gilad Shalit have not yet borne fruit, and an Israeli delegation arrived in Cairo Tuesday afternoon for more talks on the issue.

Israel's Deputy Defence Minister said Tuesday that Shalit's release was a condition for Israel to agree to re-open the Rafah crossing point from the Gaza Strip into Egypt.

Rafah terminal, Gaza's main crossing point to the outside world, has been shut since Hamas militants routed forces loyal to Abbas and seized full security control of the salient.

The Hamas takeover also prompted Israel to impose a blockade of the Strip, allowing only essential humanitarian aid into the enclave. The blockade was tightened even further after an increase in rockets fired from the Strip at southern Israel.

Although a June 19 truce between Israel and the Gaza militias ended the rocket barrages, and Israel relaxed its strictures on goods entering the Strip, Hamas is desperate to have the seige lifted completely.

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