JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plan to meet on Thursday to try to salvage peace talks bogged down by a row over Jewish settlements, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
Officials said U.S. intervention might be needed to help overcome the impasse in negotiations launched a month ago at a peace conference in Annapolis in the United States. U.S. President George W. Bush will visit the region in early January.
The first two negotiating sessions between the Israeli and Palestinian teams ended in discord, with the Palestinians protesting at Israeli plans to build hundreds of new homes in an area near Jerusalem known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Abu Ghneim.
Palestinians see the building of Har Homa as the last rampart in a wall of settlements encircling Arab East Jerusalem, cutting it off from Bethlehem and rest of the occupied West Bank. They say it is a strategic move by Israel to pre-empt any possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the Palestinian capital.
The Har Homa plan has also drawn rare criticism from the United States, Israel’s key ally.
Israel has also disclosed plans for new building within the Maale Adumim settlement, which the Jewish state hopes to keep as part of any final peace deal.
“We will urge the Israeli government to stop all settlement activities, including natural growth,” as called for under the long-stalled “road map” peace plan, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
The Palestinians have ruled out negotiating substantive issues such as borders, the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees until Israel commits to abiding by the 2003 plan.
Israeli officials define their road map obligations differently than the Palestinians, arguing that construction within built-up areas of existing settlements is permissible so long as no new settlements are built and no additional Palestinian lands are confiscated.
Israel has pressed the Palestinians to meet their own road map commitments to rein in militants in the occupied West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip as a condition for establishing a Palestinian state.
Hamas seized the coastal territory in June after routing Abbas’s secular Fatah forces.
Erekat and Israeli officials who requested anonymity confirmed Thursday’s talks, but Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said: “We have yet to announce such a meeting.”
Recurring disputes over Jewish settlements and Palestinian security have cast doubt on the prospects of Olmert and Abbas fulfilling their goal of reaching a statehood agreement before Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Olmert told visiting U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter in a closed-door meeting on Tuesday that the goal remained a realistic one. “(Olmert) said ‘yes’. He said implementation will take longer but getting the deal they can do,” Specter told reporters in Jerusalem.
It is unclear how any peace agreement, if reached, would be put into force with the Palestinian territories divided between Abbas’s Western-backed government in the West Bank and a rival Hamas administration running Gaza.
Israel is expected to make some goodwill gestures to Abbas before Bush arrives in the region.
Officials said one option under discussion involves the removal of a few small Jewish outposts in the West Bank that were built without Israeli government authorization.
Israel is also considering easing criteria for freeing Palestinian prisoners, a move one Israeli official said could pave the way for the release of Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi, a possible successor to Fatah leader Abbas.
Easing restrictions on releasing prisoners who Israel says have “blood on their hands,” a reference to attacks against Israelis, was part of efforts to secure a swap deal with Hamas for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.