JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israeli and Palestinian leaders are to meet on Wednesday for the first time with their new negotiating teams to try to bridge gaping differences ahead of a US-sponsored Middle East peace summit.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas were to join with their teams at the premier’s Jerusalem residence after holding their fourth round of one-on-one talks in less than two months.
But the two sides remain far apart over what kind of document to draw up ahead of the Middle East conference, expected to take place in Annapolis, Maryland in November.
The Palestinians want a detailed agreement and an implementation timeframe on the thorniest problems of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict — borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Embroiled in a months-long power tug with the rival Islamist movement Hamas, Abbas wants a detailed agreement on the core issues as these sticking points have sunk previous peace talks.
The Israelis meanwhile, favour some kind of a vague document — a joint declaration or a declaration of interests are the terms that have appeared in the Israeli media — to come ahead of the international meet.
Olmert is aiming to stay vague so as not to rock his government coalition, which includes an ultra-nationalist and an ultra-Orthodox party that could oppose some of the concessions that Olmert’s centrist Kadima or its main partner, centre-left Labour, may be willing to make.
The yawning gap in the positions of the two sides was reflected in the comments issued ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.
“The working teams will follow up on the progress made during the previous meetings between Olmert and Abbas and will discuss the fundamental issues necessary for reaching the goal of a two-state solution,” an senior Israeli offical told AFP.
“The document will spell out the perceptions and understandings as seen together by both sides,” he said.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said that the teams’ joint work “will focus on reaching an agreement on the core issues” that will constitute “the substance for the conference.”
Efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after a nearly seven-year deep freeze were relaunched after Abbas appointed a Western-backed cabinet following Hamas’s violent seizure of power in the Gaza Strip in mid-June.
Abbas — who last met with Olmert on September 10 — said last week that Israel and the Palestinians could sign a peace deal within six months of the international peace conference.
“Then we will begin negotiations on the details under a timeframe, which ought not to exceed six months, to reach a peace treaty,” he told AFP.
Olmert, who faces new criticism at home after the attorney general launched a second criminal investigation into his affairs, has also voiced cautious optimism over the talks with Abbas.
“We have decided to go forward in the peace process with the Palestinians… and I will continue to support Abu Mazen (Abbas) against the extremists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” Olmert said in a speech last month.
“In recent months, we have already managed, Abu Mazen and I, to establish the start of a mutual trust and begun to iron out differences,” he said.
But Olmert has sought to play down expectations ahead of the November summit, insisting it is “not a peace conference, but rather an international meeting.”
The four-person Israeli negotiating team comprises Olmert’s top advisors and senior foreign and defence ministry officials. The three-person Palestinian team will be made up of Abbas’s top aides, including former prime minister Ahmed Qorei.
Wednesday’s meeting will take place in a tent in the garden of Olmert’s Jerusalem residence of the kind traditionally put up to mark the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles.