Palestinians see rifts with Israel on peace draft

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RAMALLAH, West Bank, Oct 7 (Reuters) Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are deeply divided over the content of a joint document they are drafting for next month's US-sponsored statehood conference, Palestinian officials said today Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, both weakened by internal crises, have avoided formal discussion of agenda issues in a series of pre-conference summits. They appointed top aides to find common ground instead.

The teams, which were introduced last week, are expected to begin negotiations on Monday but their opening positions diverge dramatically, reflecting disputes between Olmert and Abbas on how to revive moribund peace talks, Palestinian officials said.

''We can say, ahead of the real discussions beginning between the negotiators, that there is no agreement on any issue yet,'' chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurie told Reuters.

A senior Abbas adviser involved in the talks said that the Palestinian president and Olmert ''each gave his team different instructions about what type of document to work on''.

The Palestinians want the joint document to address future borders and the fate of millions of their refugees and of Jerusalem -- ''final-status'' issues that Israel has long evaded, demanding the Palestinians first provide security guarantees.

But the sides have agreed that formal talks on Palestinian statehood will not begin until after the conference, which is expected in mid-to-late November in the Washington area. Until then, Israel wants to avoid a detailed discussion.

''The joint statement will address core issues. In a general way, it will show the points of accord that we hope will be the basis of negotiations in the future,'' Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

Briefing his cabinet ahead of its weekly meeting today Olmert described unspecified ''diplomatic moves'' with the Palestinians as ''inevitable'' and said he would work towards achieving Israeli consensus for their implementation.

ROAD MAP Olmert further invoked the ''road map'', a US-backed peace plan from 2003 that conditioned the creation of a Palestinian state on a series of mutual confidence-building measures including a Palestinian crackdown on armed anti-Israel factions.

''Anything to do with implementing a (two-state) solution is predicated on making good on the road map, not just in terms of content but also of sequence,'' Olmert said in broadcast remarks.

Neither side met its road map requirements, and Abbas has been weakened by Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip in June.

Hamas has called on Arab countries to boycott the conference.

Olmert saw his popularity sapped by last year's Lebanon war and would face opposition from rightist coalition partners to any handover of occupied West Bank land to the Palestinians.

He is also embroiled in a series of corruption scandals.

Israeli police plan to question him on Tuesday over one affair, the sale of a state-owned bank two years ago.

A Palestinian official said that the Israeli negotiating team wants the joint document to focus on the ''nature'' of the future Palestinian state, including that it be secular and have a stable economy, rather than on commitments required of Israel.

US President George W Bush said on Friday that he was ''very optimistic'' about the conference's chances of bringing Palestinians closer to statehood. Qurie was more circumspect.

''I don't care what the document is called. What's important is the content, the substance, and that it include the parameters, the basis for solving final-status issues, without ambiguity,'' he said.

West Asia envoy Tony Blair, tasked with helping the Palestinians on economic and security issues, returns to the region on Monday for a five-day visit, his office said.

And US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to visit next week for a new bout of shuttle diplomacy aimed at bridging Israeli-Palestinian differences.


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