Ashraf Khalil
The Los Angeles Times
March 27, 2008 - 6:45pm,1,7...

Amid ongoing rocket fire from Gaza Strip militants and efforts by the Israeli government to shore up the Palestinian Authority, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday said he was optimistic that current negotiations would produce a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

"We want it. They want it. We have to agree. It's not easy. It takes time," Olmert said during a briefing with foreign journalists. "Those who want peace, those who want good neighborly relations, will prevail. . . . These are not empty talks. We are very serious."

Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams continue to meet after a brief Palestinian withdrawal from the talks this month to protest Israeli army incursions into Gaza. Both sides have since returned to the table, but Palestinian officials complain that the lack of progress is undermining already limited public faith in the process and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' government.

During Wednesday's session with the reporters, Olmert repeatedly hinted that serious progress was being made out of the public eye.

"There are many details which are not known to everyone and I prefer it to remain so," he said. "We're talking with Palestinians in a way which we never have in the past and we are absolutely determined to continue these talks.

"I'm fully aware of all the obstacles and hurdles we have to cross . . . but we are on the way," he said.

Palestinian statements on the status of the negotiations have been much less optimistic. Senior official Saeb Erekat said last week that Palestinians were losing faith in the process. He decried ongoing construction at some Israeli settlements and the continued presence of military checkpoints that greatly hamper freedom of movement in the occupied West Bank.

"We failed to remove a single roadblock. We failed to stop settlement activity," Erekat said. "People are angry with us. . . . Their pessimism and their anger comes from our inability to deliver."

Perhaps seeking to bolster the standing of Abbas' Palestinian Authority, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday that hundreds of newly trained Palestinian police officers would be allowed to deploy in the West Bank city of Jenin in May. On Wednesday, Barak announced the approval of new equipment for Palestinian security forces and the easing of travel restrictions for some business owners.

On Israel's southern flank, militants in Gaza fired at least nine rockets at the town of Sderot on Wednesday, lightly wounding three civilians, according to Israeli authorities.

Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, recently curtailed its rocket fire into Israel. But Islamic Jihad continues to make launches, and Israeli officials say they hold Hamas responsible for all rocket attacks from Gaza.

Abbas and his Fatah Party faction lost control of Gaza to Hamas in June in a four-day military rout after a short-lived unity government collapsed.

Olmert made it clear that direct Israeli talks with Hamas were not an option. "We are not speaking to Hamas and we are not going to speak to Hamas," he said. "We will deal with Hamas in other ways and they will be very painful."


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