Sat, May 06, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Abbas calls Olmert, urges him to resume peace talks

AP , RAMALLAH, WEST BANK, AND JERUSALEM

A Palestinian gunman, a member of the al-Aqsa Brigades, an armed offshoot of the former ruling Fatah party, fires at Israeli troops during clashes at Balata Refugee Camp near the West Bank city of Nablus yesterday.

PHOTO: EPA

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday and urged him to resume peace talks.

Abbas placed the call a day after Olmert and his new center-left government were sworn in.

"President Abbas called Mr. Olmert, congratulated him on the formation of the new Cabinet and offered to resume the partnership between the two sides and to resume negotiations," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

Olmert's office confirmed the call took place, but did not provide details.

Erekat quoted Olmert as saying he was ready to meet with Abbas after the Israeli leader's trip to Washington later this month. Erekat said no date for a summit has been set.

Olmert and his new government took office with a pledge to draw Israel's border with the West Bank in the next four years, unilaterally if peace talks with the Palestinians fail.

In a vote of confidence on Thursday evening, the parliament approved Olmert's four-party coalition, 65-49, but Olmert said he hoped to expand his team -- an effort to increase his backing ahead of a West Bank redeployment, sure to evoke strident and possibly violent opposition from parts of Israel's population.

"The continuation of scattered settlements throughout the West Bank creates an inseparable mix of populations that will threaten the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish state," Olmert said, calling for withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank.

Olmert was thrust into the top job when former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was suddenly felled by a massive stroke on Jan. 4. He is still in a coma. It was Sharon, 78, who walked out of the hawkish Likud to create a new party, Kadima. Sharon intended to follow up on his unilateral Gaza pullout last summer with additional moves to solidify Israel's political and security position.

Olmert, 60, a cigar-smoking veteran politician, followed Sharon out of Likud and became his chief political ally, then stepped seamlessly into his positions as acting premier and Kadima leader.

Olmert remained deferential and low key during the four months he was Sharon's stand-in, leaving Sharon's chair at the Cabinet table empty and conducting government business from his modest office at the Industry and Trade Ministry instead of Sharon's spacious bureau in the Prime Minister's Office.

But that changed in the days before he took over as prime minister, as he brought back his colorful ties and stylish suits and cranked up his rhetoric, promoting his vision of a unilateral end to the border conflict with the Palestinians -- pressing the policy even harder than Sharon did.

Olmert insisted he is prepared for negotiations with the Palestinians, but said they must first stop attacks and dismantle violent groups -- the same demands Sharon made of moderate Abbas even before the militant Islamic Hamas won parliamentary elections and formed a government.

Israel has declared a boycott of the Hamas-led government, labeling Hamas, which has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel, a terror group.

Abbas appealed to Olmert to resume peace talks.

"You have a serious partner. We are a partner for negotiations," Abbas told the Israeli daily Maariv in an interview published on Thursday.

A fluent English speaker, Olmert gained experience dealing with top level diplomats during his term as mayor of Jerusalem. However, he lacks Sharon's larger-than-life persona, his record as a war hero and his loyal following.

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