LAGONISSI, Greece (Reuters) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed hope of reaching a lasting peace accord with Israel before the end of the year, ahead of a meeting with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday.
Abbas, who joined Barak and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at a Socialist International conference in Greece, said his government would work to keep alive a June 19 truce between Israel and the militant Islamic group Hamas.
The ceasefire was under strain on Tuesday as Israel re-sealed its border crossings with the Gaza Strip after a rocket attack a day earlier from the Hamas-controlled territory.
“Israel will live in an island and sea of peace if Israel withdraws from Arab and Palestinian territories,” Abbas told the conference. “The painful truth is that we still have a long way to go to achieve success”.
“We hope that before the end of this year, and this is a hope, we can reach a true agreement for the end of the occupation and violence … between Israel and Palestine,” Abbas said before his closed-door meeting with Barak.
Efforts to reach a deal by the end of the year have been hurt by disputes over Jewish settlement building on occupied land, a corruption scandal that could topple Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and violence along the Israel-Gaza border.
Speaking in Israel’s southern Negev desert, Olmert said Israel had shown patience with the ceasefire, but would react with full force if the rocket attacks continued.
Olmert added that, while there has been progress in the talks with the Palestinians, “all sides need to make an extra effort”.
Abbas’s more secular Fatah faction saw an end to 40 years of unchallenged leadership of the Palestinian people when Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006. Hamas fighters seized control of the Gaza strip from Fatah in June 2007.
Efforts to reconcile the two factions have so far failed.
SYRIA AND IRAQ
Barak, who also met Talabani briefly on the sidelines of the 3-day conference, said that Israel wished to extend its indirect peace talks with Syria to cover Iraq as well.
He said Iran’s nuclear programme was the most serious threat to Middle Eastern security and urged the international community to increase diplomatic and economic pressure on Tehran.
“The Iranian nuclear programme is a challenge to any possible world order,” Barak said. He declined to comment on media reports that Israel conducted a military exercise in Greek airspace simulating a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Greek Defence Ministry sources have said the manoeuvres were an exercise for training purposes, but concerns over tensions between Israel and the world’s fourth largest oil exporter have pushed oil prices to records above $140 a barrel.
Israel, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal.
Western countries and Israel fear Iran is seeking to build atomic weapons, but Tehran insists its nuclear programme is aimed at solving an electricity shortfall.