PM Olmert, PA Chairman Abbas to Meet in Jericho Next Week

Visit would mark first time an Israeli prime minister sets foot in PA territory; meeting precedes Rice's arrival to region.

State officials said Wednesday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas would meet on Monday in the West Bank city of Jericho. This meeting will mark the first time an Israeli prime minister has ever visited the Palestinian Authority.

The meeting is expected to be held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jericho.

Olmert's office declined to comment. Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said he was not aware that a date had been agreed.

The two were scheduled to meet early last month, but Abbas aides said that he had canceled the meeting because of Israel's refusal to release to the Palestinian Authority some $700 million in taxes collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinians and withheld since the militant faction Hamas rose to power in March 2006.

Last month, after Hamas violently seized control over the Gaza Strip, Abbas disbanded the unity government headed by Prime Minster Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, and established an emergency cabinet excluding Hamas members entirely. Following this move, Israel began transferring the tax revenue funds in installments, and the transfer is expected to be complete within six months.

Olmert's chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and his political advisor Shalom Turjeman are visiting Washington, preparing for U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to the region. Rice is expected to arrive in the Middle East on Tuesday, in an attempt to promote her plan to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank.

Rice has said she believes that the emergency government headed by Salam Fayad is a great opportunity to advance the political process.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met Sunday with Fayad to discuss "improving the lives of the Palestinian people, without compromising Israel's security."

Livni and Fayad, who also holds the foreign minister's post, discussed "ways through which the Arab world could support the political process in a way that strengthens the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians," a statement said.

Previously, Israel had said it wouldn't negotiate unless the Islamic militant Hamas, which had governed in a coalition with Abbas' Fatah movement, recognized Israel and renounces violence.

The Palestinians then said Israel was using the Hamas boycott as a pretext for avoiding negotiations because it was unwilling to make far-reaching concessions.

Abbas disbanded the Hamas-Fatah government last month after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip following days of violent clashes between the two Palestinian factions.

He then appointed Fayad to head an emergency government, which has won pledges of financial support from major Western powers who had imposed a crippling economic embargo on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas came to power in March 2006.

Israel and the new Palestinian government formally opened high-level contacts last month. The move marked an end to Israel's 15-month-long boycott of the Palestinian government, which was sparked by Hamas' election victory.