Olmert: No peace until Palestinians rein in militants

Monday, December 31, 2007

JERUSALEM -- Furious over the killing of two Israelis hiking in the West Bank, Israel's prime minister said Sunday that no peace will come until Palestinians crack down on militants, a declaration that clouds a coming visit by President Bush.

To clear the way for Bush to push for progress, the two sides had just agreed to paper over another spat: Israel's plan to build 307 new apartments in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem, the section claimed by the Palestinians.

But that was before the shooting of two off-duty Israeli soldiers Friday by Palestinian attackers, in a valley near the West Bank city of Hebron. There were two claims of responsibility: one from Hamas and Islamic Jihad; the other from Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which has ties to Abbas' Fatah movement.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking before the weekly meeting of Israel's Cabinet, denounced the hikers' shooting deaths.

"As long as the Palestinian Authority doesn't take the necessary steps and act with the necessary vigor against terror organizations, Israel won't be able to carry out any change that would expose it to any jeopardy or endanger Israel's security," he said.

'Road map' requirement

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, however, saw the talks as an answer to violence. "To address this issue between Palestinians and Israelis, we need the resumption of a meaningful peace process," Erekat said.

Israel's demand for a crackdown on Palestinian militants derives from the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, the agreed basis for the talks. The road map requires dismantling militant groups and Israel has long demanded that such a crackdown precede implementation of any peace accords.

Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had pledged to restart peace talks at Bush's Mideast conference last month in Annapolis, Md., aiming for a peace agreement by the end of 2008. But periodic crises are already hampering the efforts.

There have been two meetings of negotiating teams and one Olmert-Abbas summit since the Annapolis conference. After debating Israeli settlement policy and Jerusalem construction, the two sides have agreed to start tackling the main issues -- the status of Jerusalem, fate of Palestinian refugees and final borders, disputes that have stymied years of peace efforts.

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