Olmert, Abbas meet to settle talks outline impasse

( dpa ) - Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Jerusalem Tuesday, a day before US President George W Bush arrives in the region, for talks to finalize a tentative agreement on how to conduct their revived peace talks.

The two were joined by the heads of their mutual negotiating teams, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia, with the aim of agreeing on the procedural set-up of the negotiations.

Under a tentative agreement, Livni and Qureia head a central negotiating committee that will deal with core issues of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, including borders, Jerusalem and refugees.

Whenever they reach an impasse on any of these issues, the matter will be passed on for direct discussions on a higher level between Olmert and Abbas, Foreign Ministry spokesman Arieh Mekel said.

Other committees of experts are to deal with technical issues that need particular expertise, including water, Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said.

The Abbas-Olmert parley in Jerusalem is the second since they agreed at a November 27 peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland to end a seven-year freeze in peace negotiations and strive for a peace deal by late 2008. That conference was hosted by Bush, who is to arrive Wednesday for a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, with the aim of pushing forward the peace process.

The Israeli-Palestinian talks, however, have been overshadowed since the Annapolis conference by a dispute over Israeli plans to build in two key Jewish settlements east of Jerusalem and in southern Jerusalem - Ma'aleh Adumim and Har Homa - as well as by escalating violence in Gaza.

The Israeli Ha'aretz daily reported Tuesday that right-wing Israeli activists also want to build 60 new apartments on the Mount of Olives overlooking the historic Old City of Jerusalem, in a Jewish enclave in East Jerusalem that the Palestinians would like to take over for the creation of a corridor between the Old City and the eastern West Bank.

In addition, the Israeli Ma'ariv daily reported Monday that right-wing activists purchased a plot of land between southern Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where they want to build a small Jewish neighbourhood.

But it was unclear whether Olmert would approve either of these plans. His spokesman said he was unaware of them.

But he reiterated that Olmert committed to a partial freeze in construction beyond the "green line" separating Israel from the West Bank, under which all building needs specific approval by the premier.

As part of the partial freeze, Israel has pledged not to outwardly expand existing Jewish settlements.

But it will continue building within settlement blocs that it plans to keep as part of a final peace deal with the Palestinians, including Ma'aleh Adumim, which Olmert has called an "indivisible" part of Jerusalem.

Bush said in interviews ahead of his visit that he hopes to give new impetus to the process launched in Annapolis. The three-day visit is his first to Israel and the West Bank as president. He is due to land in Tel Aviv Wednesday afternoon.

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