Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
June 9, 2008 - 4:10pm

JERUSALEM — An Israeli government official acknowledged Saturday that the crucial issue of the future status of Jerusalem was unlikely to be resolved in negotiations with Palestinians this year, reflecting the abiding gaps between the sides.

The official, Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Israel was still committed to the goal set at the American-sponsored peace conference at Annapolis, Md., last fall: to try to reach an agreement outlining Palestinian statehood and dealing with “all the core issues” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of this year.

But Mr. Regev said he did not think Jerusalem’s future could be resolved so quickly. “We will outline a methodology for an agreed framework on how to deal with Jerusalem in the future,” he said.

He spoke after the chief Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qurei, said the two sides had agreed recently to start drafting a paper defining their respective positions on the various topics under discussion.

But Mr. Qurei, responding to Mr. Regev’s remarks, made it clear in a telephone interview on Saturday that a mere framework would be unacceptable. “If there is no Jerusalem, there will be no agreement,” he said.

While the talks with the Israelis were extremely serious, he said, the gaps on all the important issues were still “very, very wide.”

Israel annexed the eastern part of Jerusalem, including Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy sites in and around the Old City, after the 1967 war. The Palestinians claim the area as the capital of any future state.

The Jerusalem issue is highly emotional and symbolic for both sides and has frustrated negotiators in past rounds of talks. Mr. Olmert, who is embroiled in a corruption investigation and is fighting for his political survival, has come under pressure from part of his governing coalition not to make any concessions on the city.

But Mr. Qurei said that the two sides had agreed at the outset that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

“We do not want a framework,” he said. “We want a comprehensive agreement on all the issues. We want to leave nothing for arbitration.”

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is also in a weakened position, having lost control of Gaza a year ago to the Islamic militant group Hamas. Mr. Abbas’s authority is currently limited to the West Bank. His mainstream Fatah organization also lost parliamentary elections in 2006 to Hamas.

The Israelis and the West Bank-based Palestinian leadership now seem torn between wanting to show progress in the negotiations and not wanting to build up undue expectations.

Little has been revealed about the actual content of the talks so far, with both parties maintaining strict secrecy.

Mr. Qurei, a veteran negotiator and a former Palestinian prime minister, met Friday night with leading Palestinian journalists to give a sense of where things stood. Besides disclosing the drafting of a position paper, he said Israel had presented the Palestinians with a proposal for a permanent border between Israel and the West Bank involving land swaps. The proposal was not acceptable, he told the journalists, while declining to elaborate.

A Palestinian official with knowledge of the talks has said that the Israeli offer was for about 90 percent of the West Bank, with the other 10 percent, including the large Jewish settlement blocs, to be retained by Israel. The Palestinians were not prepared to swap more than 2 percent or 3 percent of the West Bank territory, the official said.

Both sides emphasized the significance and depth of the talks.

“We have achieved much,” Mr. Regev said, “but there is still a long way to go.”

Another senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said in an interview last week: “We are having serious negotiations. There is a realization between the two of us that there is a need.” Still, Mr. Qurei reiterated Saturday that it would be a miracle for an agreement to be reached this year, as President Bush hopes.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to visit Israel and the West Bank in mid-June.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017