Top PA Official: Israel Approved Import of 50 Armored Vehicles

Olmert, Abbas meet for first time since Annapolis summit; PM: Israel won't erect new W. Bank settlements.

Palestinians have received Israeli permission to import 50 Russian-made armored personnel carriers into the West Bank next month, after resolving a dispute with Israel over arming the vehicles, the top Palestinian security official said Thursday.

Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel Razzak al-Yahya said the Palestinians dropped a request to mount machine guns on the vehicles, after Israel objected to the move, clearing the way for the deal to proceed.

Israeli officials had no immediate comment.

The arrival of the vehicles would be the latest step in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to impose law and order in the West Bank. The U.S.-backed road map peace plan requires the Palestinians to rein in militants in the area as a first step toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

Al-Yahya said his forces have made important strides, confiscating weapons from Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants and reining in the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, an armed group linked to Abbas' Fatah movement.

"The situation now is much better, but we still need more weapons to enhance our forces," he said. "No one will be allowed to possess weapons besides the security forces."

U.S. and European Union security advisers have been training Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, part of an international effort to strengthen Abbas in his struggle against the rival Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.

PM to Abbas: Israel will not erect any new settlements in W. BankIsrael will not build any new settlements and will stop expropriating land in the West Bank, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting in Jerusalem on Thursday.

Olmert told Abbas that Israel "will take no steps that will hurt our ability to arrive at final status negotiations with the Palestinians," and added that Israel wants to carry out the negotiations "in good faith."

The meeting between was the leaders' first since the Annapolis summit last month. It was called as an attempt to solve the so-called settlement crisis that has plagued negotiations since the Annapolis summit late last month.

The Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former prime minister Ahmed Qureia, respectively, also participated in the meeting.

"We want to change the direction of the negotiations," an official in Jerusalem said. "The first two meetings of the negotiating teams failed and we would want to see positive progress."

"We attach great importance to our dialogue with the Palestinian leadership and we understand that the process is challenging," Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said ahead of the meeting at the prime minister's residence. "Israel is committed to doing everything we can to make this process work."

The key bone of contention between the two sides is Israel's continued construction in the settlements. The Palestinians are particularly upset over a tender by the Housing Ministry for the construction of 307 housing units in the southeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, on the Palestinian side of the Green Line.

A senior official in Jerusalem said both sides are waiting for President George W. Bush's visit to the region in January in the hope that the U.S. leader's arrival will push the process towards a breakthrough.

Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said the Palestinian president appealed to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to press Israel on the issue of settlement construction when Rice called on Wednesday.

A State Department spokesman said Rice called both Abbas and Olmert and urged them to make progress toward an agreement.

Hamas, which is not party to the talks, pronounced Thursday's meeting a waste of time.

"Olmert and his government continue their daily aggressions against our people, continue to build settlements, and don't recognize Palestinian political and national rights," the group said in a faxed statement.

Israel: Olmert not informed of Har Homa decision beforehandIn the framework of the mutual accusations between the two parties, the Palestinians are trying to portray Israel as intransigent in its refusal to stop its settlements while trying to establish a fait accompli.

Official sources in Jerusalem say the Har Homa imbroglio is the result of a decision by low-ranking government bureaucrats in the Housing Ministry. They say that Olmert was not informed of the decision in advance, but on the international front, these explanations do not seem to be enlisting much support.

Moreover, the Har Homa affair exposed the differences in the perceptions that both parties adhere to. As far as Israel is concerned, the neighborhood is an integral part of unified Jerusalem, and not part of the territories.

Construction at Har Homa is not subject to the same bureaucratic maze that any construction in the territories - be it a house, shack or electricity line - must endure before it is approved.

The Palestinians and their supporters in the international community do not make that distinction. To them, any Israeli construction east of the Green Line, which was Israel's border before the 1967 Six-Day War, is an illegal settlement. They treat construction in East Jerusalem much the same as they treat construction in the settlement blocs in the West Bank.

To the Palestinians, construction in the territories is an obstacle to peace and an act that jeopardizes the negotiations. In addition, the Palestinians realize that Israel - which is expecting its first visit by Bush next month - is at a disadvantage internationally as far as settlements are concerned. Their objective is to dominate the headlines until Bush arrives.

But the problem goes deeper than head-butting in the media. Israel has demanded that the Palestinians fulfill their duties according to the road map plan for peace, which the U.S. devised for both parties. But Israel has failed to meet its own obligations such as the evacuation of settlements, a total freeze on all construction in the territories and allowing the Palestinians to reopen their institutions in East Jerusalem.

Each of these moves carries a political price that could cause Olmert's coalition partners - mainly Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu - to jeopardize his government. Meanwhile, the government is opting for inaction until after Bush's visit.