Richard Bourdreaux
The Los Angeles Times
October 4, 2007 - 2:44pm,1,3826710.stor...

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders brought their negotiating teams together for the first time Wednesday and instructed them to start work next week on a joint declaration that would pave the way for full-scale peace talks.

The two-hour meeting at Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's residence did not delve into the core issues of the decades-old conflict. That task was handed to the negotiators, who have just weeks to draft a document to serve as the agenda for a peace conference called by President Bush.

U.S. officials have said the conference, aimed at reviving peace talks that collapsed in 2001, is to take place in Annapolis, Md., in mid- to late November. The Bush administration is inviting Arab states, including some that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, to attend and support any agreements.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is organizing the conference, plans to travel to the region late next week to assess the negotiators' progress. She will visit Israel and also meet with officials of the Palestinian Authority, with possible stops in some nearby Arab states, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

"The really hard work is about to begin," McCormack told reporters in Washington. "I would expect that there is going to be a lot of going back and forth among various parties in the region."

The tight deadline for negotiators is a source of discord between the Palestinians, who are in a hurry to reach a settlement leading to an independent state, and the Israelis, who are reluctant to make quick concessions.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted on drafting a framework agreement on all core issues: the borders of a Palestinian state, what part of Jerusalem it would include, and whether Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to Israel. He wants the U.S.-sponsored conference to endorse such an accord and set a timetable for negotiating the details of a final settlement under international supervision.

Olmert favors a short, vague "declaration of interests" that would serve as a guideline for ongoing bilateral discussions with no deadline.

There was no indication that Wednesday's meeting bridged the gap of expectations.

Saeb Erekat, Abbas' chief negotiator, said the two leaders would "exert every effort for the success" of the Annapolis conference. He repeated the Palestinian vision of the gathering as a starting point for final talks.

David Baker, a spokesman for Olmert, said the initial meeting of negotiators "created a positive atmosphere" for the conference. "They will be producing a document suitable to both sides," he added. Olmert and Abbas, he said, will continue meeting every two weeks to oversee the negotiators' work.

Wednesday's meeting started with a tour of Olmert's sukkah, a traditional outdoor enclosure in which observant Jews take their meals during the weeklong Sukkot holiday, which ends today. Abbas and Olmert left to meet on their own, then briefed a joint meeting of their negotiators.

Israel's team is made up of Yoram Turbowitz, Olmert's chief of staff; Shalom Turjeman, his political advisor; and Aharon Abramowitz, director general of the Foreign Ministry.

Working with Erekat on the Palestinian team are Ahmed Korei, a former Palestinian Authority prime minister; Yasser Abed-Rabbo, secretary of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee; and Saadi Kurunz, secretary of the Palestinian Authority Cabinet.

In Palestinian factional violence, meanwhile, Hamas police arrested more than 40 activists of Abbas' Fatah movement after a Tuesday night car explosion in Gaza City.

The Islamic militant group Hamas said the blast, which killed three Fatah activists and a bystander, was caused by a bomb that exploded prematurely as the activists were driving it to attack a Hamas security compound about 500 yards away. Fatah officials said Hamas fired rocket-propelled grenades at the car, setting off an explosion.

Hundreds of Fatah members waving the yellow flags of their secular movement turned the three activists' funeral into a peaceful political rally against Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.


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