Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday said peace talks with the Palestinians will continue, but he ruled out any talks with Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip. VOA's Jim Teeple has details from our Jerusalem bureau.
Speaking to an annual gathering of foreign journalists in Jerusalem, Mr. Olmert repeated that he is committed to reaching the outline of a peace agreement with the government of moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas this year.
"We do not believe we can reach a comprehensive permanent agreement that will be implemented this year," he said. "What we are trying to achieve this year is to reach a very accurate outline and definition of all the basic parameters of the two-state solution. If we reach that this year, and we seriously try to do it, then this will be an historic breakthrough that will lay the foundations for the permanent peace between us and the Palestinians."
Both Israelis and Palestinians say that secret negotiations now underway are making progress on some of the core issues that divide the two sides; permanent borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. However, Palestinians bitterly complain that Israel has not moved to stop settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and has done little to ease Palestinians' freedom of movement in the West Bank.
Mr. Olmert defended Israeli actions, saying Israel will continue construction in areas it intends to permanently control, and will not ease roadblocks and other security measures in the West Bank, because that might put Israelis at risk. He also criticized continuing rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas. Rocket attacks have dropped dramatically in the past two weeks, but Mr. Olmert says Israel regards Hamas as an implacable enemy.
"Hamas is an obstacle," he added. "It is not an insurmountable obstacle - it can be overcome. We are not talking with Hamas and we are not going to compromise with someone that is consistently shooting rockets on the heads of Israelis. We will deal with Hamas in other ways and these ways will be very painful."
Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak who held talks with the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Wednesday said he will approve the transfer of police vehicles and ammunition to security forces in the West Bank loyal to President Abbas. At the same time Mr. Barak, a former prime minister, said he will allow a group of Jewish settlers who were evacuated from the Gaza Strip nearly three years ago to move into mobile homes in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Israeli forces in the West Bank have arrested Omar Jabar, a leading Hamas figure accused of carrying out one of the worst suicide bombings in Israeli history, the so-called Passover massacre in the coastal city of Netanya in 2002. The bombing killed 30 people and wounded 143 others, and led to Israel's military reoccupation of cities in the West Bank.