Olmert, Abbas Hold Surprise Talks in Jerusalem

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hold a previously unnanounced meeting in Jerusalem. The Israeli leader promised to unfreeze $100 million in tax revenues for the Palestinian Authority.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held talks today in Jerusalem in a surprise meeting. The Israeli side agreed to some steps to bolster the embattled Palestinian leader.

NPR's Eric Westervelt is following the story in Jerusalem and joins me now.

Eric, what exactly did Prime Minister Olmert promise?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Jacki, perhaps the biggest thing Abbas got out of this surprise meeting is a pledge from Olmert to release $100 million of tax revenue that Israel collects for the Palestinians but has withheld since Hamas won elections last January. Hamas is listed as a terrorist group by Israel and the West and doesn't recognize the Jewish state's right to exist.

But in meeting with Abbas, this moderate leader of Fatah, Olmert says they'll soon release $100 million for humanitarian purposes through Abbas's office.

Also, according to a senior Palestinian official, Olmert also agreed to remove some military checkpoints in the occupied West Bank in coming days.

LYDEN: So how significant are these measures for the Palestinians?

WESTERVELT: Well, unfreezing $100 million will certainly help the Palestinians and will likely help Abbas politically. Most Palestinian civil servants haven't been paid their full salaries, Jacki, for months, given the international sanctions since Hamas took power. But his power struggle, Abbas's power struggle with Hamas is becoming increasingly bloody and it's doubtful this money will do much to dampen that internal fight.

And he also runs the risk of being painted by Hamas as being far too close to Israel and the West. Hamas has already said Abbas's recent call for early elections is a conspiracy and an attempted coup, and this might just play into Hamas's hands and even heighten internal Palestinian intentions.

LYDEN: And to Prime Minister Olmert, what could this mean for him domestically, Eric?

WESTERVELT: Well, Jacki, like Abbas, Olmert has been politically weakened by recent events. Many in Israel are still upset by Olmert's management of this summer's war with the Lebanese Hezbollah militants. So showing some limited progress with the Palestinians right now could help him domestically, politically.

But a huge important issue for Israel, the issue of prisoners - it appears there was little progress made on that issue tonight, Jacki. Israel wants Corporal Gilad Shalid, a soldier who was taken this summer by Hamas-linked militants in a cross-border raid; they want him returned safely and immediately.

The two sides agreed tonight to restart a committee to look into the issue of releasing some Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, presumably in exchange for Shalid, but Abbas aids have said in the past that there's only so much that the President can do to work for Shalid's release. It doesn't appear much progress was made on that issue tonight, other than an agreement to talk about it later on.

LYDEN: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Jerusalem. Thank you.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome, Jacki.

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