Olmert snubs Palestinian talks ahead of US visit

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Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, resisted fresh calls yesterday for early and substantive negotiations to end the conflict with the Palestinians with a declaration that their President, Mahmoud Abbas, was "powerless" to speak for his people.

On the eve of his first visit to Washington as premier, Mr Olmert said in an interview with CNN that while he respected Mr Abbas personally, "he is helpless. He is unable even to stop the minimal terror activities amongst the Palestinians."

As his Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, rejected a proposal by the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, to streamline the exhaustive preconditions in the internationally agreed road map in order to hasten talks on a final peace deal, Mr Olmert added: "How can [Mr Abbas] seriously negotiate with Israel and assume responsibility for the most major, fundamental issues that are in controversy between us and them?"

Israel's stance was reiterated as Mr Abbas launched an appeal at the World Economic Forum meeting in Sharm El Sheikh for negotiations in which he, and not Hamas, would speak for the Palestinians and put the outcome to a referendum. He promised that the Hamas-led Palestinian government "will not object to this and will not create obstacles before these talks".

Mr Abbas, who simultaneously faces mounting internal strife in Gaza and the West Bank, said he would be leading talks between his Fatah faction and Hamas this week in an attempt to prevent what he admitted was the " crisis" over control of the security services from escalating into an all-out civil conflict. Mr Abbas said civil war was "a red line that nobody dares cross, no matter which side they are on ... Civil war is forbidden."

Mr Olmert, who will have extensive talks with Mr Bush tomorrow, will outline his "realignment" plan for withdrawing from parts of the West Bank while consolidating the big Jewish West Bank settlement blocks on the Western side of the separation barrier. But the US has made it clear is not yet ready to give the unilateral plan its formal, public, blessing until Mr Olmert has at least attempted negotiations with Mr Abbas.

Mr Olmert has made it clear he intends to "consult" Mr Abbas, who met Ms Livni yesterday. But Mr Olmert may not meet Mr Abbas before meeting regional and European leaders in the next three weeks, starting with Britain, France, Jordan and Egypt. All four are in favour of serious negotiations between Israel and Mr Abbas.

One senior aide to Mr Olmert indicated last week that he did not expect negotiations to make any progress because of the Hamas-led cabinet's refusal to meet the pre-conditions set out for Israeli and international recognition of it ­ namely recognition of Israel and formal abandonment of all violence.

But much of the public focus of the summit is likely to be on Iran, which Mr Olmert said yesterday was "months rather than years" from having the know-how to build a nuclear bomb.

Meanwhile, Fatah sources said security personnel had defused a large bomb left outside the Gaza home of Rashid Abu Shabak, appointed by Mr Abbas as security chief. This came less than 24 hours after General Tareq Abu Rajab, the Palestinian Authority intelligence chief in Gaza, was injured by an explosion in the lift of his office building.A group calling itself " The Qaida Organisation of the State of Palestine" claimed responsibility for the attack on General Abu Rajab.

Amir Peretz, the Israeli Defence Minister, yesterday ordered an inquiry into how a Palestinian woman, Hanan Aman, her five-year-old son and the child's grandmother were killed in a missile attack in Gaza, which killed Mohammed al-Dahdouh, a prominent Islamic Jihad commander on Saturday. The three civilians were travelling in a nearby taxi. The targeted assassination was approved by Mr Peretz. Four Qassam rockets had been fired from Gaza at the Israeli town of Sderot, including one which hit a school classroom while the children were away at prayers.