Olmert, Abbas meet on draft conference document

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JERUSALEM, Oct 3 (Reuters) Israel voiced confidence today it would reach agreement with the Palestinians on a joint statement ahead of a US-sponsored West Asean conference on Palestinian statehood expected next month.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meeting in Jerusalem, brought together their negotiating teams for the first time and instructed them to begin drafting the document next week, an Israeli official said.

''These meetings (of the working groups) are geared to and will bring the formulation of that joint statement in time for the upcoming international meeting,'' David Baker, a spokesman for Olmert, told reporters after the session.

Olmert is under cabinet pressure not to give ground on sensitive issues and is seeking a broadbrush joint statement for the conference expected to convene in mid- to late November in Annapolis, Maryland.

Abbas wants an explicit ''framework'' agreement with a timetable for final-status talks on issues such as borders, the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, and for implementing any statehood accords.

Olmert and Abbas held a one-on-one meeting at the Israeli leader's residence in Jerusalem and were later joined by the two drafting teams.

Abbas negotiator Ahmed Qurie said before the session the Palestinians would ''exert maximum effort'' to complete the document ahead of the conference. ''We'll see if this will be possible. It will not be easy,'' he told Reuters.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to return to the region in about two weeks to assess the pace of conference preparations, officials said.

The conference is part of a US-led effort to bolster Abbas and his West Bank-based government and to isolate Hamas Islamists who seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.

Israel has released close to 90 Palestinian prisoners, most of them members of Abbas's Fatah faction, this week as a goodwill gesture. Abbas's office said more needed to be done.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in Gaza the Olmert-Abbas meetings were aimed at ensuring ''fundamental Palestinian issues'' would not be addressed.

It was unclear to what extent Olmert was prepared to delve deeply into the ''final-status'' matters with a Palestinian leader who holds sway only in the West Bank.

Olmert has been weakened politically by corruption scandals and criticism of his handling of last year's war in Lebanon.

Olmert hosted Abbas in a Sukkah, an outdoor enclosure which observant Jews use for meals marking the Sukkoth festival. A Sukkah is used to commemorate the biblical story of how Jews came to the Holy Land from Egypt after a 40-year desert sojourn.

REUTERS SKB HS1855

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