Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, agreed Sunday to possibly extend the working hours of the Karni commercial crossing in eastern Gaza.

In their first bi-weekly meeting, advised last month by U.S Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, both leaders exchanged views. Speaking in a press conference in Ramallah, shortly after the Jerusalem meeting, chief Palestinian negotiator Sae’b Eriqat said that the Israeli prime minister promised to extend the working hours of the Karni commercial crossing in eastern Gaza.

The issue of the Karni crossing has been repeatedly discussed by both sides during previous meetings, yet this is the first time an agreement has been reached. Eriqat told reporters that President Abbas emphasized the need for Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement and remove roadblocks in the West Bank.

Olmert expressed dissatisfaction over the existence of such roadblocks, Eriqat maintained. The Palestinian official pointed out that Abbas and Olmert discussed the release of corporal Gil’ad Shalit. Prior to his meeting with Abbas, Olmert said he wouldn’t drop the Shalit case from his meeting’s agenda, saying he would see if Abbas is ready to live up to a previous commitment that Shalit would be released unconditionally.

Olmert also had earlier hinted that he would discuss the Palestinian economy as well as the rule of law across the Palestinian territories. Palestinian information minister, Mustafa Barghouti, regarded the Israeli statements as ‘an intervention in the Palestinian legal system’, voicing the belief that Israel wants to deal with the Palestinians as ‘limited autonomy’ by avoiding addressing final status issues such as the boundaries of a future Palestinian state and the problem of Palestinian refugees.

Negotiator Eriqat also told reporters that both leaders agreed to explore a ‘political horizon’, saying that meetings between President Abbas and the Israeli PM should not be dealt with as ‘public relations’.

“The president has presented the Arab peace initiative, endorsed last month by the Arab countries, to PM Olmert as a basis for possible peace- a peace that cannot be achieved unless the occupation comes to an end, Eriqat maintained.

In an initial Palestinian reaction to the Abbas-Olmert meeting, deputy Palestinian Prime Minister Azzam Al-Ahmad voiced disappointment over the meeting’s results. Speaking to Aljazeera TV Arabic channel, Al-Ahmad said “if such meetings remain the same , then there will be no need for them”.

Al-Ahmad stated that what the Palestinians should do is rearrange their own agenda in co-ordination with the Arab countries. The Abbas-Omlert meeting comes at a time when the Palestinians have offered a prisoner swap deal to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of Israeli corporal Gil’ad Shalit, captured in Gaza for the past ten months.

It also comes as the Arab countries have reaffirmed a peace proposal that calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Arab occupied lands in return for normal Israel-Arab ties and a fair solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees which have been displaced by Israel since 1948.

Israel expressed willingness to deal with the Arab peace proposal, yet it had earlier refused the clauses relating to the return of Palestinian refugees. In her fourth diplomatic visit to the region, U.S Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice urged both Palestinians and Israelis to establish ‘a common agenda’ to advance their peace talks.

Palestinian-Israeli peace talks were stalled after the Palestinian uprising (Intifada) in 2000.