"Deep differences" remain in Israeli-Palestinian talks

(dpa) - Israelis and Palestinians remain divided on many subjects, senior officials on both sides said, after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Jerusalem to review their ongoing peace talks.

"Differences over many issues are still very deep between the sides," Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, told a news conference in Ramallah.

"Both sides raised concerns, real concerns, but we agreed today that those concerns would not interfere with the political negotiations," Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, told Deutsche Presse Agentur dpa.

Erekat protested continued Israeli settlement activity and restrictions on movement in the West Bank as well as the blockade on the Gaza Strip which he called a "prison."

Regev however said that Israel could not remove military checkpoints and roadblocks without endangering Israeli civilians, saying that while the Palestinian Authority has begun to crack down on militants, there was still a long way to go.

He said there was no "quick fix" to the checkpoint issue and that the Olmert government had done more than previous Israeli administrations to curb settlement expansion in certain areas of the West Bank.

It remained unclear when the two leaders would meet again.

Erekat said the Abbas-Olmert parley was "in depth and serious." It focused on reviewing the status of the talks on the so-called core issues, which began around the turn of the year and are being conducted amid a virtual media blackout, with the chief negotiators, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian premier Ahmed Qureia, rarely commenting on their regular meetings.

Livni and Qureia were present for some of the Abbas-Olmert parley Monday afternoon.

The talks were the first between the two leaders since a concerted Israeli air and ground offensive against rocket-firing militants in the Gaza Strip, launched at the end of February.

Abbas had temporarily suspended negotiations, revived four months ago after a seven-year freeze in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, to protest the killing of more than 125 Palestinians in the five-day Israeli operation, which had sought to retaliate against a surge in rocket attacks from the Strip.

Aids to Abbas said the Palestinian leader would use Monday afternoon's meeting to reiterate demands that Israel lift its economic blockade of Gaza, stop settlement construction in the West Bank and remove settlers' outposts.

Erekat complained after the meeting that Israel had so far met none of its commitments under the international "road map" peace plan, revived to run concurrently with the current peace negotiations, while Palestinians were trying to meet theirs.

The road map, which outlines a series of steps the sides must take, culminating in a Palestinian state, was launched amid great fanfare in 2003. It was stymied almost immediately afterwards amid mutual charges of non-compliance, but was revived at last year's Annapolis, Maryland, peace conference, when Abbas and Olmert pledged to try and reach an agreement by the end of 2008.

The optimism which greeted the revival of the peace talks has since been muted, and the sides have intimated that the 2008 deadline may not be met.

The talks have since been overshadowed by the ongoing rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip at Israeli towns and villages near the salient and subsequent Israeli retaliations, and by Israeli announcements of planned construction in West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.

At best, Israeli officials have said, a framework deal might be reached, but an actual peace agreement, and a Palestinian state, might have to wait.

"We are holding serious negotiations and want to reach a solution to all final status issues. We want an acceptable solution and not a solution at any cost," Abbas told members of his Fatah party on Sunday night.

Livni, for her part, was quoted by the Israeli media as saying Sunday that she too would present "red lines" in the negotiations, including on the issue of security, the Palestinian refugee problem and holy sites.

It was the first time she publicly used the term "red lines," as part of a new strategy, the Israeli Yediot Ahronot daily reported.

"There are things we are able to compromise on, and there are things we cannot compromise on. Israel has no intention of compromising on the red lines and the international community needs to understand this," she said in a meeting with a Christian leader.

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