Olmert and Abbas to instruct negotiating teams

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JERUSALEM, Oct 3 (Reuters) Israeli and Palestinian leaders today meet with their negotiating teams to begin drafting a document that will serve as the foundation for a planned West Asia conference on Palestinian statehood.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet one-on-one at the Israeli leader's residence in Jerusalem before the two drafting teams are involved, officials on both sides said.

Abbas negotiator Ahmed Qurie said the Palestinian side 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.

A senior Israeli official concurred: ''Smooth negotiations will not happen.'' Olmert is under cabinet pressure not to give ground on sensitive issues and is seeking a broadbrush joint statement for the US-sponsored international gathering expected to convene in Annapolis, Maryland, in mid- to late November.

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

Israeli and Palestinian officials said the leaders would for the first time give their negotiating teams instructions on how to proceed, setting parameters for talks on key issues.

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.

SECURITY CONTROL Olmert has been considering giving Abbas's security forces greater control over one or two West Bank towns, Israeli and Western officials said.

But Israeli government spokesman David Baker said: ''Israel has made it clear this cannot come about until the Palestinians demonstrate that they're able to take effective security control over those areas.'' Israel has released close to 90 Palestinian prisoners this week as a goodwill gesture to Abbas. Abbas's office welcomed the move but said more needed to be done.

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

''There is no one to deal with now on permanent-status agreements,'' Israel's public security minister, Avi Dichter, told Israel's Channel 10 television on the eve of the meeting.

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

During their meeting, Olmert and Abbas will sit 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 SG PM1435

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