Middle East Summit ‘Within Days’

JERUSALEM (BBC) – Israel’s prime minister says he hopes to meet the Palestinian Authority president for a summit within days, but warned against expecting quick results.

In radio interviews, Ehud Olmert said he was exerting great effort to start a dialogue with Mahmoud Abbas.

"The distance is long… we don’t have to be hasty. How it will end, we shall see," Olmert said.

It would be their first formal summit since Olmert took over as Israeli leader from Ariel Sharon in January.

In the same month, the militant movement Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, won Palestinian parliamentary elections and Israel froze contacts.

Olmert and Abbas last met at an informal meeting in June.

Days after the meeting, Israel launched a major military offensive in Gaza following the capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants.

‘No Pre-conditions’

Olmert has ruled out goodwill measures such as releasing Palestinian detainees until the soldier held in Gaza, Gilad Shalit, is released.

However, Palestinian officials say Abbas is not interested in holding a summit unless he has assurances it would deal with more than the fate of Cpl Shalit.

"I hope to meet him within the coming days," Olmert said.

"I do not set any conditions but do not accept that conditions are imposed on me."

Following the recent conflict in Lebanon, Olmert came under intense domestic pressure for his handling of the crisis, and international pressure to return to negotiations on the core Palestinian issue.

During the fighting, in which Hezbollah guerrillas fought in formerly occupied land vacated by Israel in 2000, Olmert shelved his plan to determine Israel’s borders with a series of withdrawals from the West Bank.

Olmert acknowledged that political opponents were gunning for him, and the BBC’s Wyre Davies in Jerusalem says he sounded like a man in need of a strong policy initiative to boost his standing.

‘Muslim Support’

Also in the interviews, Mr Olmert ruled out holding talks with Syria, which he accused of being "the main sponsor of Palestinian terrorist groups".

Syria says it wants negotiations with Israel to return the Golan Heights, which Israeli forces occupied in the 1967 war.

But Olmert said the conflict in Lebanon had created new momentum in relations between Israel and Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"During the war, we fought against Muslims, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Abu Dhabi and other governments, including Indonesia, talked – in the context of this war – against the Muslims and not against us," he said.

Some Sunni Muslim nations initially criticized Hezbollah for its capture of two Israeli soldiers, although they also condemned Israel’s bombardment which caused hundreds of civilian casualties in Lebanon.

The Israeli prime minister remained evasive about reports that he had met secretly with a senior member of the Saudi ruling family – something Riyadh has strenuously denied.

"We have decided that on this subject, I am going to deliver a denial, but you don’t have to believe it," Mr Olmert said.

"On other matters, believe all my denials," he added.

© BBC News (September 28, 2006)

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