November 16, 2005

Abbas, Israeli minister meet in Tunis

By Elana Ringler

TUNIS (Reuters) - Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom
and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met twice on the
sidelines of a technology summit on Wednesday, boosting
contacts a day after a U.S.-brokered deal to open the Gaza
Strip borders.

The talks between the two, attending the World Summit on
the Information Society in Tunis, marked the highest-level
contact between Israel and the Palestinians in months.

Shalom and Abbas first held what an Israeli official
described as an unscheduled meeting on the sidelines of the
conference before convening later in the day along with U.N.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan for a second session.

"It was a good meeting," Abbas told reporters, speaking
about the first round of talks.

"I reminded him that this (Gaza deal) was the first
agreement signed in five years and that now we should really
close that gap and not only implement what has been signed but
sign new agreements," he said.

In rare progress in Middle East diplomacy, U.S. Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice brokered a deal on Tuesday to open
Gaza's border to Egypt and for passage arrangements for
Palestinians between the coastal territory and the occupied
West Bank.

The European Union has pledged to help prevent arms
reaching Gaza, which Israel quit in September after 38 years'
occupation and now fears could become a base for Islamic

"It (border crossing arrangement) should be made with full
security that will be promised to the Israelis and to the
tourists that are coming to Israel," Shalom said.

A planned summit between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon has stalled over renewed violence in spite of a
truce they declared in February and the Gaza withdrawal.


At their first meeting of the day, Shalom reaffirmed to
Abbas that Israel opposed the participation of the militant
Hamas group in a Palestinian parliamentary election due in
January, the Israeli official said.

Sharon has said Hamas must not be allowed to take part in
the ballot until it disarms and amends a charter calling for
the destruction of the Jewish state.

Abbas has said civil war would erupt if he tried to take
weapons away from the militants, who have spearheaded a
five-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Shalom's preliminary talks with Abbas were attended by
Mauritianian President Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, and the Israeli
minister planned to meet at least one other Muslim leader in
Tunis, said spokesman Lior Ben Dor, without identifying him.

Tunisian-born Shalom, 47, brought to Israel as an infant by
his parents, hailed what he called a "breakthrough" in such
contacts, following an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire in
February and the Gaza withdrawal that ended 38 years of
military rule.

Israel has full diplomatic relations with four major Muslim
countries -- Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Mauritania -- and
interest offices or economic missions in several others.

"There is no doubt our situation is better today with
regard to ties with the Muslim world," Shalom told Israel

"I very much hope that those same good relations with the
governments of the Arab world will lead to contacts with the
people themselves."