Olmert and Abbas meet, heavy clashes in Gaza

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JERUSALEM, Oct 26 (Reuters) Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed today to begin taking reciprocal steps under a long-stalled peace plan to try to narrow gaps ahead of a US-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood.

Negotiators working to draft a joint document that addresses key issues for establishing a Palestinian state had complained that the other side was still failing to implement even the first phase of the US-backed ''road map'' to peace proposed in 2003.

Israelis accused the Palestinians of failing to curb violence and the Palestinians accused Israel of failing to stop Jewish settlement growth and to uproot illegal outposts.

Over a two-hour lunch with their chief negotiators in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recommitted themselves to the road map as a prerequisite to advancing towards a deal, officials said.

''Both sides today reaffirmed their own commitment to the road map ... There is no gap on this issue,'' Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin told reporters.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also said Olmert and Abbas were set on ''immediate and reciprocal implementation of the two sides' obligations of the first phase of the road map''.

A key sticking point for negotiators ahead of the conference planned for Annapolis, Maryland, before the end of the year has been resolving Palestinian demands for a clear timetable for negotiating a statehood agreement before US President George W Bush steps down in 15 months.

Israel has long rejected setting deadlines, arguing that they only raise expectations. Pressed on the issue today, Eisin said: ''We are not talking now about timetables.'' Both she and Erekat stressed that the Quartet of international powers, led by the United States, must be the judge of whether each side's commitments had been met.

GAZA VIOLENCE Ahead of the talks in Jerusalem, Israeli forces engaged in some of the fiercest clashes in weeks in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian Islamists opposed to Abbas seized control in June, complicating his quest for statehood.

Before the meeting, Erekat condemned an Israeli plan to reduce power supplies to Gaza in response to rockets fired by militants from the enclave into Israel.

Erekat, who also attended the talks in Jerusalem, called on the international community to ''intervene immediately to protect the Palestinian people and compel Israel to comply with international humanitarian law''.

While profoundly hostile to Hamas, Abbas's secular Fatah faction and the Palestinian Authority it controls in the West Bank have spoken out against Israeli action in Gaza, where troops killed six militants in raids today.

Erekat said the Israeli government's decision to start reducing power supplies to Gaza's 1.5 million people in response to militant rocket attacks was a ''provocation'' that would ''double the suffering'' of those living in the coastal enclave.

It was not immediately clear when the cuts will begin.

Eisin said Abbas raised the issue with Olmert: ''Israel will protect its citizens,'' she said. ''We will take the steps needed but we will not allow a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.'' REUTERS GT AS2119

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