Israeli, Palestinian leaders make little progress
JERUSALEM – The second summit in a month between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, encouraged by U.S. officials as a way to nurture their fledgling dialogue, produced little progress on Sunday. A Palestinian participant called it “difficult.”In the only concrete result, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to keep the vital Karni cargo crossing between Israel and Gaza open for longer hours to allow more goods to enter and exit the seaside territory, an official said. Israel has kept Karni closed often, citing security threats.Larger issues standing in the way of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians – borders, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem – were apparently not even seriously discussed. Olmert said in advance that the talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would be limited to humanitarian issues.His position reflected Israel’s rejection of the government headed by the violently anti-Israel Hamas as well as the impending Palestinian unity government consisting of Hamas and Abbas’ more moderate Fatah movement.Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian negotiator who attended the meeting, called the summit “difficult.” He said the Palestinians called on Olmert to fulfill his pledge to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank by removing roadblocks, and to release sick and elderly Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, but Olmert made no promises.The Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed, said Olmert pressed Abbas to halt Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza and arms smuggling from Egypt, and win the release of an Israeli soldier captured in June by Hamas-linked gunmen.The power-sharing deal between the two Palestinian rivals, reached last month in Saudi Arabia, has cast a shadow on Mideast diplomacy because it does not meet international demands that any Palestinian government renounce violence, recognize Israel and commit to previous peace agreements.While willing to maintain ties with Abbas, Olmert says he will not conduct peace talks with a government that includes Hamas unless the group agrees to meet those demands.Under the unity deal, the new government only agrees to “respect” past agreements, falling short of the international conditions.Dahlan said the Palestinians told Olmert the unity government is an internal Palestinian matter, according to Dahlan’s spokesman.Just before the meeting ended, the Al-Jazeera satellite channel broadcast an audio recording of al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader criticizing Hamas for agreeing to the unity government.”I’m sorry to face the Islamic community with the painful truth, to offer condolences for the leadership of Hamas … Hamas has fallen in the swamp of surrender,” Ayman al-Zawahri said.Hamas has made a “mockery of Muslims’ minds and feelings” by saying that the accord reached in Saudi Arabia respects international agreements, al-Zawahri said.”Hamas went on a picnic with the American devil and its Saudi agent,” al-Zawahri said. “What is happening in Palestine is another form of humiliation. … Oh you sensible ones, why all this retreat in front of the American scheme? America is being defeated in Afghanistan and Iraq.”Al-Jazeera did not give a date when it was made, but an anchorman said that al-Zawahri praised the attack in Afghanistan that occurred while Vice President Dick Cheney was there on Feb. 28.Al-Jazeera did not say how it obtained the audio recording and its authenticity could not be immediately verified. Excerpts broadcast were no longer than five minutes.”The comments about Hamas were Zawahri’s strongest criticisms of the group to date,” said Ben Venzke of the U.S.-based IntelCenter, a U.S. government contractor that studies al-Qaida messaging.Venzke said the recording appeared to be authentic, noting that the video with a still photo of al-Zawahri, accompanied by an audio recording, had the logo of Al-Sahab, al-Qaida’s media wing.Palestinian government spokesman Ghazi Hamad of Hamas said al-Zawahri does not understand the situation. “We still believe in struggle, but we also think that the political track is a part of resistance,” Hamad told AP Televison News.Despite some similarities in their fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam, Hamas denies any connection to al-Qaida. Hamas says its violent tactics, which have included dozens of suicide bombings, are aimed strictly at Israel, and that it has no quarrel with the Western world at large.Sunday’s meeting between Abbas and Olmert followed a Feb. 19 summit in Jerusalem that also ended with little progress. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who attended last month’s meeting, had urged the sides to continue talking.Abbas has argued the unity deal with Hamas is essential to end months of infighting. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed in internal violence since last May, after Hamas defeated Fatah in legislative elections.In the most serious flare-up of fighting since the agreement, gunmen from Hamas and Fatah exchanged fire early Sunday in northern Gaza. A local Hamas militia leader was killed and seven people were wounded.—Associated Press writers Nadia Abou el-Magd and Willa Thayer in Cairo, Egypt contributed to this report.