Abbas and Olmert meet before Bush visit

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held a final meeting Tuesday before their separate talks with United States President Bush this week during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Just hours before President Bush is due to touch down in Israel, Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas met in Jerusalem.

Neither man issued any public statements following the meeting, but they instructed their negotiators to form working groups to discuss core issues such as the status of Jerusalem, Israel's borders with a future Palestinian state and the issue of Palestinian refugees. The talks are supposed to lead to the formation of a Palestinian state by the end of this year. However, neither side said when the talks would start.

Talks between the two sides have been bogged down since last November's Annapolis, Maryland Mideast peace conference, with Palestinians angry over continued Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Israelis angry over continued Palestinian militant attacks.

Mahdi Abdel Hadi who heads the Palestinian research group PASSIA says both Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas are politically weakened, and it is unlikely either man can probably give the other what he wants.

"I think both leaders, Olmert and Abbas are weak, vis-à-vis their constituencies," he explained. "It is what they can deliver to their own societies. Olmert is facing challenges by other leaders to take over the prime ministership. Abbas is challenged by the partition between Gaza and the West Bank and there have been no improvements to the quality of life under occupation."

Since their last meeting with Mr. Bush at the Annapolis Mideast peace conference, Mr. Abbas and Mr. Olmert have each accused the other of reneging on pledges to advance the peace process. Now it will be up to Mr. Bush to see if he can get Mr. Abbas and Mr. Olmert to bridge their differences and get the peace process that was revived at Annapolis back on track.