PM Backs U.S. Plan to Arm and Train Abbas Loyalists

Israel supports the implementation of the Dayton plan for the training and arming of the Palestinian Presidential Guard, loyal to Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, diplomatic sources said yesterday, following a meeting between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. However, Palestinian sources described the meeting as fruitless.

At the meeting, the Palestinian delegation relayed the details of the plan the Palestinian Authority had devised with the assistance of Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator to the PA.

The sources said Dayton had procured a $59-million budget for two main objectives. The first of these is reinforcement of the Presidential Guard with additional weapons, ammunition, equipment, training and funds. The second is to secure the Palestinian side of the Karni Crossing, which is the lifeline of the economy in the Gaza Strip.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, the government's most senior contact to Dayton, has discussed the plan with the American coordinator in recent weeks. Egypt and Jordan have agreed to train the 1,500 soldiers of the Presidential Guard, most of whom are to be deployed in the Gaza Strip. Arab countries from the Persian Gulf have agreed to provide additional funding for the plan.

The guard already received an initial shipment of assault rifles from Egypt several months ago. The sources noted that Abbas had promised Olmert that the soldiers of the guard will be deployed along the Philadelphi Route in Rafah, in an attempt to foil arms smuggling from Sinai into the Gaza Strip.

Additionally, Olmert and Abbas agreed to continue to participate in the meetings of the joint security committee of Egypt, the PA, the U.S. and Israel. The committee's meeting were renewed recently after they had been suspended.

According to the sources, Olmert promised Abbas that Israel will accelerate the efforts to remove roadblocks in the West Bank. He also said Israel will expand the activity at crossings into the Gaza Strip.

Olmert asked Abbas to act to attain the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israel Defense Forces soldier who was abducted by Hamas militants last June. He also reported on progress in the meetings between Israel and Egyptian mediators for a possible deal for Shalit's release. Olmert also demanded that Abbas put an end to the firing of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel.

The meeting, which dealt with security and humanitarian issues, was held in the Prime Minister's Residence, in Jerusalem, and was also attended by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. An IDF lieutenant-colonel also attended the meeting. The officer briefed the Palestinians on the plan to remove IDF roadblocks in the West Bank.

According to the officer, the IDF has so far removed 44 roadblocks. He added that the IDF was planning to remove an additional 17 in the next stage of the plan. The sources said that the Palestinian delegation requested the removal of more roadblocks, and that Olmert expressed his willingness.

Olmert told Abbas that starting today, the Karni Crossing will operate according to an extended double-shift framework, to expedite the export of goods from the Strip. "Trucks will no longer have to wait more than one day," Olmert reportedly said.

The prime minister also said Israel will extend the agreement with the EU for the operation of the Rafah Crossing between the Strip and Egypt. He said he intended to extend the activity of the crossing to several days a week.

After the security briefings, Olmert and Abbas conversed in private for some 40 minutes about "the political horizon." Olmert is seeking to avoid going into the details of the cardinal and disputed issues pertaining to a future Palestinian state, among them the refugee question, the future status of Jerusalem and the 1967 borders. He was nonetheless willing to discuss the general outlines of such a state in his meeting with Abbas, the sources said.

Olmert reportedly told Abbas that he was willing to hold their next meeting in Jericho, in keeping with the suggestion made by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that the biweekly meetings should be held on alternating sides. Palestinian sources expressed disappointment that the meeting had "not produced any tangible results." The sources told Haaretz that "the parties agreed only to meet again in two weeks' time."