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Olmert sceptical about deadline

Latest update : 2008-02-18

PM Ehud Olmert said the talks for a Palestinian state by the end of 2008 were for establishing "basic principles" rather than a full-fledged agreement.

JERUSALEM, Feb 17 (Reuters) -  Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
said on Sunday the Israeli army had a "free hand" to target
anyone in the Gaza Strip, particularly ruling Hamas Islamists,
to bring an end to cross-border rocket fire at the Jewish state.

Olmert also said the goal of peace talks with Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas was to reach an understanding on "basic
principles" for a Palestinian state by the end of 2008, rather
than a full-fledged agreement.

Olmert said Abbas had agreed to postpone talks on the future
of Jerusalem until the end of the negotiating process, a move
that could anger Palestinians but help Olmert hold together his
fragile coalition government for now.

"I don't know if we will be able to reach an understanding
with the Palestinians. I hope we will. We'll do everything in
our power to. But we will not start with the issue which is the
most difficult," Olmert said of Jerusalem.

Israel asserts that it can maintain parallel tracks with the
Palestinians, one aimed at reaching a statehood agreement with
Abbas and the other at breaking Hamas's hold on the Gaza Strip.

Olmert has so far been wary of launching a major ground
operation in Gaza, which Hamas Islamists seized by force in June
after routing Abbas's more secular Fatah faction.

But the Israeli leader faces growing domestic pressure to
act against the rocket salvoes, especially after Hamas claimed
responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed a woman and a
rocket attack that cost an 8-year-old boy part of his leg.

Some members of Olmert's cabinet have urged the army to
start assassinating Hamas's political leaders.

"We have completely a free hand to respond, to reach out and
to attack everyone (who has) any kind of responsibility on
behalf of Hamas," Olmert told Jewish-American leaders in
Jerusalem. "That applies to everyone, first and foremost Hamas."

Israeli forces killed three Palestinian militants and a
civilian during a ground operation in the Gaza Strip on Sunday.

Frequent Israeli air strikes and ground incursions into the
coastal territory have killed some 300 Palestinians in the past
year, including dozens of civilians, but failed to prevent
rocket fire, which killed two Israelis in the same time period.

Shunned by the West for refusing to renounce violence after
beating Abbas's Fatah faction in a parliamentary election two
years ago, Hamas says it would cease fire if Israel stops its
military operations in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Hamas is also demanding an end to an Israeli-led blockade
that has cut supplies to the territory's 1.5 million people.


Olmert said he hoped to be able to sign an "understanding"
with Abbas before the end of 2008 that would cover the "basic
principles" for statehood, including borders, the fate of
Palestinian refugees, as well as Jerusalem.

His comments appeared to run counter to those made by U.S.
President George W. Bush last month in a visit to the occupied
West Bank. Bush set the goal of trying to get both sides to sign
a "peace treaty" before his term ends next January, though he
did not spell out what that might entail.

Olmert's government has already lost one of its right-wing
coalition partners over the peace talks.

The ultra-religious Shas party has also threatened to bolt
if the talks focus on Jerusalem.

"We will postpone dealing with Jerusalem to the last phase
of the negotiations," Olmert said, stressing that Abbas had
"accepted" his suggestion.

Ahead of a planned meeting between Olmert and Abbas in
Jerusalem on Tuesday, visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard
Kouchner warned that he saw no real sign of progress since a
U.S.-sponsored peace conference in November launched the
statehood negotiations. He called the situation dangerous.

Palestinian leaders have voiced increasing frustration that
Israel has yet to meet its commitments under a 2003 "road map"
peace plan that calls for halting all Jewish settlement activity
and for uprooting outposts built without government
authorisation in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli leaders say the Palestinians have yet to fulfil
their own road map commitment to rein in militants, including
those in the Gaza Strip.

While Olmert has imposed a de facto halt to new construction
in settlements in the West Bank, he has not called off building
in and around Arab East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as
capital of a future state.

Date created : 2008-02-17