Sheera Frenkel
The Times
April 25, 2008 - 6:16pm

Israeli and Palestinian leaders were pursuing diplomatic initiatives on three fronts yesterday as both fought for their political survival.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, both suffer from discontent in their ranks and low poll ratings that have refused to recover as US-brokered peace talks fail to make significant progress.

Mr Abbas met President Bush in Jordan yesterday in an effort to put pressure on Israel to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank and open up road blocks. An official in Mr Abbas’s Fatah government said that failure to see progress on those two key points was causing disillusionment among Palestinians over his ability to lead.

“If [the Israelis] want us to continue to lead and the West Bank not to fall into the hands of the Hamas, they must take some effort to follow through on the promises they made to us,” the official said.

Mr Olmert has faced a growing conservative rebellion against his peace negotiations and has consistently polled lower than Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud Party.

“There is no limit to the dangerous concessions Olmert is willing to make for the sake of his political survival,” Likud said in a statement. A spokesman for the party added that Mr Olmert was “clutching at straws” to establish peace and bolster himself in the next election.

However, a deal — at least in the short term — appeared within reach yesterday as the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas gave Egypt a detailed ceasefire proposal that would begin in Gaza, which Hamas controls, and expand to the West Bank after an agreed period. Palestinian factions would agree to stop rocket attacks from Gaza, and Israel would refrain from raids and targeted killings, as well as open border crossings between Israel and Gaza.

Israel has imposed an embargo on the Gaza Strip since June 2007, when Hamas seized control of the area. That embargo has led to a dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, according to several aide organisations working there. United Nations officials said that the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unwra) and the World Food Programme, who together feed more than one million people in Gaza, had ceased all aid distribution.

“We have just stopped the distribution of all food aid to 650,000 Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip because of the lack of fuel in our storage in Gaza,” Adnan Abu Hasna, a UN spokesman in Gaza, said.

Israel claimed that Hamas was preventing distribution of a million litres of fuel delivered about a week ago to the Nahal Oz terminal on the Gaza border. "Hamas is creating an aritificial and dishonest crisis,” Arye Mekel, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign ministry, said.

Israel stopped supplying petrol and diesel and cut fuel supplies for Gaza’s power plant after Palestinian militants attacked Nahal Oz two weeks ago, killing two Israeli civilian employees. It resumed shipments of fuel for the power plant several days later but again halted deliveries after another attack killed three Israeli soldiers near the crossing.

President Assad of Syria confirmed yesterday that Turkey had relayed a message from Israel expressing a readiness to return land in the north in exchange for peace.

Mr Assad said that Syria was ready to negotiate with Israel through Turkey, but that any direct talks would have to wait until a new US President was elected. Syria had received word, he said, that Israel was willing to give back the Golan Heights, which it captured in the 1967 Six Day war, in exchange for peace. Syria and Israel last held peace negotiations in 2000, but those talks collapsed over the extent of Israel’s proposed withdrawal from the area, which consists of strategic high ground, vital water resources and farming land.

Heads of Israeli towns in the Golan Heights convened for an emergency meeting to try and thwart Mr Olmert’s effort to return the area. The Golan residents are appealing to right-wing members of the coalition to try and force the issue to a national referendum.


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