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Israel, Palestinians at Odds Over Disengagement Plan

Senior Israeli officials have set what they describe as a firm timetable for talks with Palestinians, before moving unilaterally to disengage from large parts of the West Bank. Palestinians have criticized the plan.

Speaking after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received a positive response to his plan from President Bush, Israel's Justice Minister Haim Ramon said Israel will not pursue negotiations with the Palestinians beyond the end of this year.

Ramon's remarks echoed Prime Minister Olmert, who said in Washington that Israel wants to pursue negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but with the Islamic militant group Hamas in charge of the Palestinian government Israel has no negotiating partner.

Dov Weissglass, Mr. Olmert's political advisor told Israel Radio that Mr. Olmert will meet with Mr. Abbas, but their talks will be limited.

Weissglass says there will be no substantive political discussions between Israel and the Palestinians unless and until the Hamas government agrees to recognize Israel, disarm and recognize previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians - something Hamas has refused to do.

Mr. Olmert's disengagement plan calls for Israel to withdraw from about 100 settlements in the West Bank and move settlers into three large settlement blocs in the West Bank. It would also set Israel's border with the Palestinians along the lines of the controversial separation barrier.

Palestinians say the plan is illegal under international law, and amounts to a land grab by Israel that will leave Palestinians without any possibility of achieving a viable state.

In his meetings with Mr. Olmert, President Bush called for Israel to pursue talks with President Abbas and for Hamas to recognize Israel.

Mr. Bush also said he supports a negotiated settlement leading to a two-state solution, but he called Mr. Olmert's plan bold.

Palestinian government spokesman Ghazi Hamed, a senior Hamas official, says Palestinians do not believe Israel is serious about negotiations, and that Mr. Olmert's plan could cripple plans for Palestinian statehood.

Hamed says it is clear to Palestinians that Israel is not willing to negotiate at this time, even though Palestinian President Abbas has repeatedly offered to do so.

A spokesman for President Abbas said Mr. Olmert's plan would only prolong the Arab-Israeli conflict, saying Mr. Abbas can immediately start negotiations with Israel.

Meanwhile, less than a day after Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah agreed to meet this week to try to defuse tensions in the Gaza Strip, gunmen killed at least one Hamas militant and wounded several others in a new outbreak of violence.