Little progress was reported tonight from the second summit meeting in a month between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
A Palestinian participant called it “difficult”.
The two leaders met for more than two hours at Olmert’s Jerusalem residence and pledged to continue their contacts, prodded by US officials to nurture their fledgling dialogue.
In the only concrete result, an Israeli official said 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. 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 at the summit.
Olmert said in advance that the talks would be limited to humanitarian issues, reflecting his rejection of the current government headed by the violently anti-Israel Hamas.
Olmert and Abbas walked into the residence together. The two leaders, flanked by their aides, sat on opposite sides of a conference table as the talks began.
Negotiator Mohammed Dahlan, who attended the meeting, called the summit “difficult”.
He said the Palestinians called on Olmert to fulfil 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, 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 official said Abbas hoped the soldier, Cpl Gilad Shalit, would be freed before the formation of a new Palestinian unity government consisting of Hamas and Abbas’ more moderate Fatah movement.
A spokesman for one of the groups that claimed the abduction, Abu Mujahed of the Popular Resistance Committees, said the soldier would be freed only if Israel accepts their demands, without elaborating.
The power-sharing deal between the two Palestinian rivals, reached last month in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, has cast a shadow on Mideast diplomacy because it does not meet international demands that any Palestinian government renounce violence, recognise 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.
Today’s meeting followed a summit last month in Jerusalem that also ended with little progress.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who attended that 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.
The unity deal has brought a lull to the Gaza Strip, where the infighting has been concentrated, but tensions remain. In the most serious flare-up of fighting since the agreement, gunmen from Hamas and Fatah exchanged fire early Sunday in northern Gaza.
Mohammed Kafarneh, a local Hamas militia leader, was killed and seven people were wounded. Hamas vowed revenge.
Ahead of today’s summit, Olmert announced he was ready to “treat seriously” a dormant Saudi initiative calling for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
In the past, Israel has rejected the plan’s call for a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem. It also opposes the plan’s implicit endorsement of a large-scale return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to areas inside Israel.
The 2002 Saudi initiative is expected to be high on the agenda of a pan-Arab summit in Riyadh later this month.
The Saudi push comes at a time when many moderate Arab governments view progress on the Palestinian-Israeli issue as a way to lower tensions and to blunt the growing influence of Iran.