Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
July 6, 2010 - 12:00am

Israel on Monday announced details of the easing of its blockade of Gaza, and the Israeli defense minister held a rare face-to-face meeting here with the Palestinian prime minister in a flurry of activity apparently intended to show diplomatic momentum ahead of the Israeli prime minister’s meeting with President Obama, scheduled for Tuesday in Washington.

After a rocky few months in Israeli-American relations, officials on both sides seemed eager to move to a smoother footing and show progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in which the Obama administration has invested heavily.

American-brokered indirect peace talks started in May after a year of efforts. Daniel Shapiro, a senior Middle East adviser at the National Security Council, said Friday that in the weeks since, “the gaps have been narrowed.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said over the weekend that the “main goal” of his meeting with Mr. Obama would be to advance to direct talks with the Palestinians, as well as to discuss security issues like Iran’s nuclear drive. Yossi Gal, the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said the “significant steps” that Israel had taken regarding Gaza would also be raised.

But Palestinians say little has been achieved so far, and they have tried to dispel any inflated notions of progress. “What I see is all public relations,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Monday by telephone.

He said that Mr. Netanyahu held the key to beginning direct talks, which would involve an Israeli commitment to resume negotiations from the point at which they ended in December 2008 and a freeze of all Israeli settlement construction, including in East Jerusalem. The Netanyahu government rejects those demands.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad, met Monday at a Jerusalem hotel but released no joint statement. Palestinian officials emphasized that the encounter dealt with practical issues affecting Palestinian daily life. Israel said the men discussed security and economic coordination for the West Bank and Palestinian Authority activity to prepare border crossings for an expanded supply of civilian goods into Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu was originally supposed to meet Mr. Obama in early June. He canceled that meeting, cutting short a trip abroad, after a deadly confrontation during an Israeli raid on a Turkish boat trying to breach the blockade of Gaza. Nine people on the boat were killed.

The raid outraged much of the world; it severely strained Israel’s ties with Turkey, an important regional ally, and became a catalyst for a serious re-examination by Israel of its policy toward Gaza, which is governed by the militant group Hamas.

There were continuing signs of stress in Israeli-Turkish relations on Monday, with Israel again rejecting a Turkish demand for an apology for the fatal raid.

During a visit to Latvia, Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Israel had no intention of apologizing. His remarks followed a report in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet that quoted Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, as saying that Israel “will either apologize or acknowledge an international impartial inquiry and its conclusion. Otherwise, our diplomatic ties will be cut off.”

Israel has rejected an international investigation, but has set up an internal panel of inquiry with two foreign observers.

At the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Monday, Mr. Gal, the director general, and Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, a senior military official, detailed the new guidelines for the entry of goods into Gaza, in line with an Israeli security cabinet decision on June 20.

In what amounts to a reversal of the system of the past three years, since Hamas took full control of Gaza, Israel has created a list of items not permitted to enter Gaza for security reasons. Before, it allowed only those items that were specifically approved.

Among the items Israel has prohibited are all weapons and munitions and “dual use” items that it says have military or terrorist purposes alongside civilian purposes. That list goes beyond an internationally recognized roster of such items.

Materials banned specifically by Israel include a range of chemicals and certain fertilizers that Israel says can be used to produce explosives, and other items like hunting knives, optical equipment, diving equipment, parachutes and gliders.

In a second list, Israel has itemized construction materials whose entry into Gaza will be allowed only for projects authorized by Hamas’s rival, the Palestinian Authority, and carried out under international supervision.

The Obama administration reacted positively to the news. “We believe the list of restricted goods for Gaza announced today will make a significant improvement in the lives of people in Gaza, while keeping weapons out of the hands of Hamas,” a White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said in a statement. He said Mr. Obama “looks forward to discussing it with the prime minister.”

Israel has pledged to expand economic activity in Gaza, where local industry has been decimated by the blockade. But Sari Bashi of Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group that focuses on freedom of movement for Palestinians, said that raw materials vital for local factory owners were still not being allowed in on Monday.

Robert H. Serry, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said Monday in a statement that he “welcomes the measures announced today by the government of Israel as important steps in the right direction.” But he added, “This can only be the beginning of the long road towards reconstruction and a functioning economy in the Gaza Strip.”


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