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Archive for Friday, June 23, 2006

Meeting joins Israeli, Palestinian leaders

June 23, 2006

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— Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas kissed and embraced Thursday in the first meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in more than a year, and Olmert made a rare apology for Palestinian civilian deaths in recent Israeli airstrikes.

Despite the icebreaker, the Israeli prime minister said peace talks were unlikely unless the Palestinians' Hamas-led government changes its stripes, and he pledged to keep up attacks against militants.

Thirteen Palestinian civilians have been killed in Israeli airstrikes in the past week, including two slain by an errant missile Wednesday at a house in Gaza.

"It is against our policy and I am very, very sorry," Olmert said after a breakfast meeting with the Palestinian president in the ancient town of Petra hosted by Jordan's King Abdullah II. He reiterated the apology "from the depths of my being" when he spoke Thursday evening in Jerusalem after returning from Jordan.

Olmert did not mention a June 9 beach explosion that killed eight Palestinian civilians. Palestinians blame Israel, but Israel has denied responsibility. The Israeli airstrikes came in response to rocket attacks by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

"Israel will continue to carry out targeted attacks against terrorists and those who try to harm Israeli citizens," Olmert said in Jerusalem.

The Jordanians saw the Abbas-Olmert meeting as an effort to warm relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and the encounter seemed to produce the desired effect: The two men shook hands and embraced, and both sides promised a more substantive meeting in coming weeks.

Abbas, a moderate elected separately last year, is in an intense power struggle with Hamas and is trying to persuade Israel to bypass the militant group and negotiate peace directly with him.

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