Israeli, Palestinian Leaders to Work on Joint Declaration

( LatWp ) - Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed Wednesday to begin work on a joint declaration setting out their positions on the core issues of their long conflict before a U.S.-proposed peace conference tentatively scheduled for next month.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams will begin meeting privately next week to begin the contentious drafting process, which for the first time in years will expose the extent of their disagreement on such issues as the shape of a future Palestinian state, the right claimed by Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel, and the division of Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who met here Wednesday for the latest in a series of confidence-building meetings, have also disagreed on what standing the document should have in the international conference that President Bush called for this year. Olmert has favored drawing up a general declaration of principles, while Abbas has demanded a more detailed and binding document.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said after Wednesday's meeting that the document "would not be a peace agreement." But he said "it must be substantive" if it is to serve as the basis for final-status talks following the meeting. The Israelis and Palestinians have not had formal negotiations since January 2001.

"Our differences will materialize once we sit down," Erekat said. "But it is time to finish this. It is time for decisions, not negotiations."

The Bush administration has yet to set a date for the meeting or issue invitations to possible participants. Israel would like to see in attendance such regionally powerful Arab countries as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which do not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Israeli and Palestinian officials have been working under the assumption the meeting will be in mid-November, perhaps at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

But the late start on drafting a document to guide the conference has cast the timing in doubt. Abbas, a leader of the secular Fatah party, has warned that unless he can return from the meeting able to show tangible progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state, the rival Hamas movement will gain political strength at his expense.

Hamas, an armed Islamic movement classified as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, seized control of the Gaza Strip in June after routing Fatah forces there. Abbas dissolved the power-sharing government that Hamas led, but the movement continues to run a parallel administration in the strip.

Abbas has appointed a new government in the West Bank, envisioned as the other main territorial component of a future Palestinian state. Olmert has sought ways to improve Abbas' political standing, including freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenue that Israel froze after Hamas' January 2006 victory in parliamentary elections.

Olmert this week released 86 Palestinian prisoners, the majority of them Fatah members from the West Bank. Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinians in prison, and even moderate Palestinian leaders dismissed the release of fewer than 1 percent of them as virtually meaningless.

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