Israeli and Palestinian Olympic officials met Thursday to begin building closer ties and help send stronger teams to the 2012 London Games.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, who traveled to the Middle East in October, brokered a five-hour gathering at Olympic headquarters that also addressed lifting Israeli travel restrictions to allow Palestinian athletes and coaches more freedom to travel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The parties hailed the "positive and constructive" meeting, and agreed to study the travel issues before returning to Lausanne in March. They aim to then present proposals to their governments.
"We believe that through sport we can make a difference. I hope today we made the first steps," Efraim Zinger, secretary general of the Israel Olympic committee, told The Associated Press.
Zinger described Palestinian Olympic leader Jibril Rajoub as a partner in the process.
Rajoub said it was "a common choice for everybody" at the meeting to seek better ways of helping Palestinian athletes and teams compete internationally.
As a first step, Palestinian athletes were promised IOC funding and Israeli support to prepare for the London Olympics.
"It is my dream as Palestinian national Olympic committee president to participate in next year's Olympic games by an army of athletes," Rajoub told The AP.
Only four Palestinian athletes competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, even though the team is entitled to additional help through the IOC's solidarity program.
'We'll help Palestinian team prepare for Olympics'
Zinger said Israel was committed to hosting the Palestinian team at training camps and coaching seminars, and share its knowledge of sports science and medicine.
"We are there and in advance we said 'Yes' for any request regarding assistance for the preparation of Palestinian athletes for the Olympic Games," Zinger said.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Israel also sought IOC help to increase its participation in Olympics sports.
The issue was raised of Israel and Palestine being accepted into the Mediterranean Games, a quadrennial multi-sports event next hosted by Greece in 2013.
"That is something the IOC agreed to engage more actively on," Zinger said. "Every Israeli athlete or coach or sport person has the right to participate in sports events, conferences and meetings that are under the patronage of the IOC or one of the international federations. That is part of the Olympics charter."
Palestinians also need IOC help to change "realities on the ground" which include international opponents being affected by travel limitations, Rajoub said.
Rajoub, who is also president of the Palestinian football federation, said his team must be allowed to play a home match next month against Thailand which counts toward qualification for the London Olympics tournament. "It is a priority for me," he said.
Restrictions enforced by Israel on athletes' movements helped eliminate the Palestinians from 2010 World Cup qualification. The Palestinians federation could not send a team to a return match against Singapore in October 2007 and forfeited. Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup is scheduled to start in June.
The IOC delegation was led by Pere Miro, director of relations with national Olympic committees, who said the two parties showed "impressive" support for Olympic ideals.
"Through sport we can contribute to make a more tolerant world and make societies understand each other," Miro said.
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