JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed to start drafting elements of a proposed peace accord, the chief Palestinian negotiator said.
On Saturday the negotiator criticized Israel on Saturday for not easing Palestinian movement in the West Bank.
The U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be heading to the region next week to try push negotiations forward, her office said.
Ahmed Qureia, the veteran negotiator heading the Palestinian team, made it clear that the decision did not necessarily reflect agreement on major issues. But this would be the first time since negotiations resumed more than six months ago that anything would be committed to paper.
“We agreed with the Israelis to begin writing the positions,” Qureia told reporters late Friday.
Israeli government officials would not comment.
Qureia did not explain why the two sides had agreed at this point to begin drafting a text.
The timing coincides with a corruption scandal in Israel that threatens to unseat Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Should Israel find itself going to early elections, polls show Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes major territorial concessions to the Palestinians, becoming Israel’s next premier. However, drafting during previous rounds of peace talks has not meant always that those positions were then preserved for future negotiators.
Qureia did not say what issue the two sides would start with. If they reach agreement on any issue, then they will draft a single provision, he said. If not, they will lay out on paper their divergent views, he added.
Israel and the Palestinians resumed peace talks in late November under U.S. prodding. Continued Israeli settlement construction and Israeli security concerns have clouded negotiations, and both sides have expressed doubt about achieving the declared goal of clinching a final accord by the end of the year.
Despite the announcement that negotiators would begin drafting their initial positions, Qureia said on Saturday that Israel hadn’t done enough to ease the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, despite a pledge to ease Palestinian movement in the area as a part of peace talks.
“The checkpoints should have been removed after the Annapolis conference,” Qureia told reporters while standing at a major checkpoint outside the northern West Bank town of Nablus, refering to a Mideast peace conference that took place in November.
A U.N. report in May said that the number of Israeli obstacles in the West Bank increased from 566 in September to 607 in April.
Qureia confirmed that Israeli peace negotiators have offered the Palestinians land in exchange for territory where major West Bank settlements lie, but he termed their offer “unacceptable.”
Palestinians would like to incorporate all of the West Bank into a future state, but their moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas, has acknowledged that Israel, with U.S. backing, likely will hold on to blocs where tens of thousands of settlers live. In exchange, Abbas is prepared to relinquish some West Bank land for an equal amount of Israeli land.
Qureia would not say how much territory Israel offered, where it lay or how much West Bank land the Jewish state proposed to keep under a final peace accord with the Palestinians.
“The Israelis presented a land swap offer, but this offer is unacceptable to us,” he said.
Other Palestinian officials have said Israel has presented maps giving it 10 percent of the West Bank in exchange for southern Israeli territory near the Gaza Strip.
U.S. Secretary of State Rice will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah next week to meet senior negotiators to push forward negotiations, her office said. Previous visits by Rice have led to little progress on negotiations. Qureia said negotiations were “going through a difficult period,” because of tense discussions over the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, both hotly contested issues on both sides.