Abbas to Press Olmert on Lifting Gaza Blockade, Control of Crossings

Barak says Israel would consider allowing Palestinian Authority to handle Gaza crossings.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will ask Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to end a blockade in Gaza and accept his offer to control Gaza's border crossings, Palestinian officials said on Saturday.

The two leaders are expected to meet on Sunday to discuss how to push forward with peace talks after Hamas breached Gaza's border with Egypt in defiance of an Israeli blockade.

Israel and the Palestinians launched their most serious peace talks in seven years at a U.S.-sponsored conference in November with the goal of signing a peace treaty in 2008.

Thousands of Palestinians poured into Egypt this week to stock up on food and fuel in short supply after Israel closed its borders with the Hamas-controlled territory in what it said was a bid to end cross-border rocket fire into southern Israel.

The fall of the border wall punched a new hole in a U.S.-backed campaign to curb the clout of Hamas and strengthen Abbas, nearly eight months after the Islamist group routed his Fatah forces in Gaza.

Abbas will also ask Olmert to lift immediately travel restrictions in the occupied West Bank, officials said. Israel has so far balked at removing its hundred of checkpoints that crisscross the West Bank.

"The number one issue on the agenda of Sunday's talks between President Abbas and Olmert will be ending the siege imposed on Gaza, and the need to end the siege in the West Bank as well, as there are hundreds of checkpoints there," senior Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo told Reuters.

The newly launched talks have dealt with so-called final- status issues such as borders and the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, but the two leaders remain at odds over the scope of the deal.

Israeli officials said Olmert was seeking a deal that would outline a "framework" for a future Palestinian state with implementation delayed until the Palestinians can ensure Israel's security.

Abbas wants a final peace treaty enabling him to declare a state by the end of the year.

Israel said it had tightened its Gaza blockade last week to counter cross-border rocket fire, but after an international outcry, fuel and aid supplies were partly restored.

Abbas aides said Hamas's breach of the border gives Israel justification to divide the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip from the West Bank, where Abbas holds sway. Abbas wants both territories for a future Palestinian state.

Abbas will also press Olmert to allow his security forces to take control of Gaza's border crossings. Though Hamas has said it will prevent the move unless it has a say in any future agreements regarding the border crossings.

Israel mulls PA control of Gaza crossingsIsrael could allow Gaza crossings to be opened under the security control of the Palestinian Authority, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said here Thursday.

"If the PA's security could be as effective as that of Jordan, Egypt, or even Syria, we would consider alleviating the situation [in the Gaza Strip] significantly," he said, adding: "We're not promising anything."

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said this statement was a source of hope. "We must seriously consider Israel's security concerns. We are committed to non-violence and to solving the conflict by peaceful means," he said.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would not commit to completing negotiations with the Palestinians by the end of the year, when President George W. Bush's term in office comes to an end. She said the agreement is not connected to the present American administration.

"I don't like working to a timetable because it leads to frustration and violence," she said.

Livni said both sides want to solve the conflict and it takes time to do so properly. "I don't believe it's connected to the present American administration. We're doing it for our own sakes. We want to do it this year. We will have meetings every few days."

Livni said that before implementing the agreement certain changes must be made. "At this stage it does not appear possible to complete the agreement and throw a key over the fence, hoping someone on the other side catches it."

"We need an effective government that can rule, a proper administration, something that could change the situation and accept the key not only in the West Bank but in Gaza," she said.