Olmert, Abbas tell teams to draft conference deal

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JERUSALEM, Oct 3 (Reuters) Israel voiced confidence today it would reach a deal with the Palestinians on a joint statement in time for a US-led conference that Palestinians see as a launching pad for final talks on statehood.

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.

An agreement on a joint statement is seen as key to the success of the conference expected in November.

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

''The expectation is that they're going to be working on it and they will be producing a document suitable to both sides,'' Baker said. ''The work on that has now just begun.'' Olmert is under pressure from his cabinet 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.

Abbas adviser Yasser Abed Rabbo said the joint document would be negotiated in secret and should serve as the basis both for the conference and subsequent negotiations over a final agreement for creating a Palestinian state.

The international forum, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, will mark ''the launching of permanent-status negotiations in order to achieve the treaty of peace on all the core issues''.

Israel has stopped short of saying the conference would restart final-status talks that collapsed in early 2001.

ONE-ON-ONE 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.

Once the document is produced, Abed Rabbo said it would be presented to the decision-making body of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as well as Olmert's cabinet.

Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurie acknowledged before Olmert and Abbas met that ''it will not be easy'' to complete the document ahead of the conference.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to return to the region in about two weeks to assess the status of talks.

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.

Hamas said 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.

REUTERS RS RAI2034

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