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Senior Israeli, Palestinian Officials May Meet

Senior Israeli and Palestinian officials could hold informal talks in the next few days at an economic summit in Egypt. If the talks go forward, it will be the first high-level contact between Israeli and Palestinian officials since the Islamic militant group Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will both attend a regional meeting Sunday of the World Economic Forum, and both will participate in a joint panel discussion on regional issues, prompting speculation that the two will hold informal discussions on the sidelines of the conference.

A spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry says there are no formal plans for a meeting, but chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat tells VOA a meeting could take place, although he says it is unlikely to generate any breakthroughs.

"I am not undermining the meeting," he said. "I think it is a good sign, but, at the same time, I do not want to raise expectations. We need much more comprehensive resumption of contacts with the Israelis at all levels."

While President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have held several phone discussions recently, there has been no high-level meeting between an Israeli and Palestinian official since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January.

Mr. Olmert, who travels to Washington for talks with President Bush and other senior U.S. officials next week, says he sees no point in holding a meeting with Mr. Abbas, as long as Hamas refuses to recognize Israel.

During his Washington visit, the Israeli prime minister is expected to outline details of his plan to dismantle most West Bank settlements, while consolidating settlers in three large settlement blocs in the West Bank, a plan Palestinians have condemned as a land grab.

Meanwhile President Abbas is demanding that Hamas officials, who now govern the Palestinian Authority, disband a 3,000-man security force they deployed Wednesday across the Gaza Strip. Saeb Erekat says, if Hamas does not disband the force chaos could follow.

"I hope they will do it, [disband the force], because not doing it will really mean very disastrous consequences for Palestinians everywhere," he said.

Palestinian police, who are mostly loyal to Mr. Abbas's Fatah organization, and members of the new security force, believed to be loyal to Hamas, are facing off against each other in Gaza. Hamas and Fatah have been feuding over who controls the Palestinian security forces since Hamas officially took control of the Palestinian Authority in March.