Olmert, Abbas agree to divide up talks

Times Staff Writer

Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed Monday to set up negotiating teams on the core issues standing in the way of Palestinian statehood, bringing the two sides a step closer to full-fledged peace talks.

But Israel cautioned against expecting any breakthrough before or during a Middle East peace conference that President Bush has called for this autumn.

The Israelis and Palestinians broke off their last serious peace negotiations in 2001 after the start of a Palestinian uprising. An effort to revive talks began when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas began meeting last December, but progress has been sluggish.

It was only last month that the two leaders first broached issues at the heart of the conflict: eventual borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who fled homes in what is now Israel. Those discussions did not delve into detail, according to aides.

“They now believe it is time to take it to the next level, to engage on the substance of how to achieve a solution,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters after attending part of Monday’s session, the 10th between Olmert and Abbas. “This is a serious development.”


Israel’s negotiating team will draw specialists from Olmert’s office and the Foreign and Defense ministries. It is to meet with a Palestinian team not yet named to discuss each of the core issues.

Beyond that, officials on both sides offered no details about how the teams would work, saying only that Olmert and Abbas would meet again in two weeks.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to return to the Middle East next week to continue pressing the two sides for agreement on the outlines of a final peace settlement. It will be her second trip to the region to try to shape an agenda for the conference, which would bring together Israeli and Palestinian and other Arab leaders. Officials here say they expect it to take place in Washington in November.

But Israeli officials said Monday’s meeting, held at Olmert’s office in Jerusalem, yielded no commitment to produce any kind of accord in time for the conference.

“The negotiating teams are not focused on a timetable,” said Miri Eisen, a spokeswoman for Olmert. “Both sides would like to see the international meeting succeed, but November is not the endgame.”

She said Olmert wanted to see the Palestinian Authority “take practical steps” toward building state institutions and taming armed militants in the West Bank, which Abbas’ Fatah faction controls, as talks on Israel’s withdrawal from the territory proceed. “We have to work on two tracks at once,” she said. “What’s the use of giving them an independent state if they are not ready to assume responsibility for its security?”

Despite the effort to play down expectations, Abbas told reporters that Monday’s meeting was “successful at many levels.”

Abbas has much at stake, having lost control of the Gaza Strip in June when the Islamic militant group Hamas ousted his secular Fatah faction. While Hamas refuses to renounce violence against Israel and permits rocket attacks from Gaza, Abbas is eager for any sign of movement toward peace with Israel to help shore up his authority.

Today, a homemade Kassam rocket fired from Gaza struck a tent filled with sleeping soldiers at an Israeli army base a mile away, wounding 25, the army said. One of the soldiers was listed in critical condition. Islamic Jihad, a militant group that also rejects peace talks with Israel, claimed responsibility.

In meetings with Olmert, Abbas has been pressing for a detailed outline of a peace accord along with a timetable for implementing it and an arrangement for international oversight. Without such an accord, he has warned, the U.S.-sponsored conference will be a failure.

Israeli officials and analysts have portrayed Olmert, whose ruling coalition is broad but fragile, as reluctant for now to offer more than a short list of vague principles regarding the main issues of a settlement.

“The more abstract the agreement with the Palestinians, the more stable Olmert’s coalition is,” said Gidi Grinstein, a former peace negotiator and founder of the Reut Institute think tank, which advises the Israeli government.

He added: “The most I think we can expect from the November conference is a text that is a set of principles that serves as a mandate for much more extensive negotiations.”

Meanwhile, Olmert made a tentative concession Monday, telling Abbas that he would recommend that Israeli authorities free an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners for the Ramadan holiday, which starts this week. Israel holds an estimated 11,000 Palestinians.