Abbas sees six-month timeframe for peace talks

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RAMALLAH, West Bank, Oct 4 (Reuters) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's government said today formal negotiations to create a Palestinian state could be completed six months after a US-sponsored Middle East conference.

Palestinian Information Minister Riyad al-Malki said the agreement would then be brought before the Palestinian people, both inside the Palestinian territories and abroad, for a referendum.

It is unclear how a referendum would be organised with the Palestinian territories divided between Hamas Islamists ruling the Gaza Strip and Abbas's secular Fatah faction controlling the occupied West Bank.

Briefing reporters one day after Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met in Jerusalem, Malki said final-status talks would be based on a joint document that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will begin drafting next week.

Malki said the joint document, which will be presented to the conference in mid-to-late November, would touch on final status issues such as borders, the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees but would not go into ''the minute details''.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said Abbas and Olmert on Wednesday agreed that final-status negotiations would begin after the conference but Olmert balked at setting a specific timeline for reaching a final deal.

Malki said Abbas expected the final-status talks to last ''for six months at most'' because much of the groundwork had been covered in earlier negotiations.

Once a final-status agreement is reached, it would be presented to a follow-up meeting of the countries that took part in the conference, Palestinian officials said.

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

Hamas has rejected the conference and said the Olmert-Abbas meetings were aimed at ensuring ''fundamental Palestinian issues'' would not be addressed.

Abbas had hoped that a framework agreement would be presented to the conference that included specific details about final-status issues as well as a timeline for implementation.

But Olmert pushed instead for a broadbrush joint statement without any timeline. The Israeli leader has been weakened politically by corruption scandals and criticism of his handling of last year's war in Lebanon.

REUTERS JK PM1816

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