Dispute Over Israeli Gestures Could Delay PM-Abbas Meeting

A dispute over the gestures Israel will make toward the Palestinians could delay a planned meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Olmert and Abbas aides met Thursday to discuss the gestures the Palestinians expect, which relate to freeing Palestinian prisoners and transferring tax funds, in further preparatory talks ahead of the leaders' planned meeting.

While Palestinian officials said they believe the Olmert-Abbas meeting will take place in Jerusalem this coming Monday, the Prime Minister's Office said no date for the meeting will be set until the preparatory talks are brought to a successful conclusion. Abbas had previously announced that he hopes to meet Olmert before the end of the month.

One of the gestures the Palestinians expect, Abbas aides said Thursday, is a prompt first meeting of a planned Israeli-Palestinian committee on the release of Palestinian prisoners. This committee will set criteria on which prisoners Israel will eventually release.

The Palestinians are also demanding that Israel transfer some of the tax money it has collected on the PA's behalf, which it has refused to hand over since Hamas assumed power. Palestinian sources said that they expect some $60 million to be transferred to Abbas in the first stage.

Palestinian sources said they thought a deal on the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit, in exchange for Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners, could be concluded by the Id al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) holiday, which falls next Friday.

However, Olmert's aides stressed at Thursday's meeting that the prime minister is unwilling to release any Palestinian prisoners before Shalit is freed. A source in the Prime Minister's Office added that he is unaware of any progress in the efforts to free Shalit.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit is due to come to Israel for a two-day visit next Wednesday, but it is not clear whether this has any connection to the Shalit deal.

The aides reached agreement on Thursday over removing certain Israeli checkpoints and other steps to increase Palestinian freedom of movement in the territories, but there was no agreement on Abbas' request that Israel allow the PLO's Badr Brigade to enter the territories. The brigade is currently stationed in Jordan.