Olmert, Abbas pledge progress on peace moves

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JERUSALEM, Oct 26 (Reuters) Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed today to take steps previously agreed under a long-stalled peace plan to try to narrow differences ahead of a US-sponsored conference on establishing a Palestinian state.

The process would be under US supervision, officials said.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meeting in Jerusalem, failed to agree deadlines for carrying out the ''road map'' accords of 2003, which commit the Palestinian leadership to suppress militants and Israel to reining in Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Officials on both sides said they agreed the United States would oversee monitoring of their compliance and pledged to intensify efforts to negotiate a common position on how to set up a Palestinian state before US President George W Bush's conference convenes near Washington in as little as a month.

But Olmert, facing opposition even within his own cabinet to any sweeping concessions, has rebuffed Palestinian demands for a timetable for creating a Palestinian state -- something Abbas wants to see agreed before Bush steps down in just over a year.

Hamas's seizure of the Gaza Strip in June has further complicated those aspirations and fuelled Israeli doubts about Abbas's ability to control militants. Three of Hamas's fighters were among six Islamist gunmen killed by Israeli troops today in some of the worst fighting in the enclave in weeks.

Olmert responded to a complaint by Abbas about Israeli plans to cut power to Gaza in response to rocket attacks by insisting he would defend Israeli citizens. But his spokeswoman said he also assured Abbas he would not allow a ''humanitarian crisis''.

''Both sides today reaffirmed their own commitment to the road map,'' Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin told reporters.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the parties agreed to an ''immediate and reciprocal implementation'' of the road map.

TIMELINES On the question of timetables, however, the gap remained.

''We are not talking now about timetables,'' Eisin said.

Ahmed Qurie, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said today's lunch was ''constructive'' but also told Reuters: ''We request a timeline.

The Israelis have a different point of view.'' Erekat said: ''Olmert told Abbas, 'You and I want to see an agreement before Bush leaves office, but I'm worried that if we have a timeline we will not adhere to it. I see it as useless.' ''Abbas said the Palestinians see this as an incentive to reach an agreement and give hope to the people.'' Bush has been criticised by some for playing little role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a presidency where Middle East policy has been dominated by the occupation of Iraq. But he has now said progress toward peace is a priority. US Secretary of State ondoleezza Rice returns to the region in a week.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said the Quartet of major powers should monitor compliance on the road map and said this meant, in effect, US supervision. Washington forms the Quartet along with the European Union, United Nations and Russia.

Israeli officials are sceptical of Abbas's ability to assert himself against militants and are wary that Bush's determination to show progress toward peace may mean U.S. pressure on its ally Israel to accept deals without the security guarantees it wants.

''The question is whether the United States will decide (the Palestinians) have met their commitments even if they haven't,'' a senior Israeli official told Reuters. ''The road is now open to a possible conflict between the Americans and the parties.'' Abbas says Israeli occupation undermines his authority. He complained again on Friday to Olmert about army raids, the fate of Palestinian prisoners and the demolition of Arab homes: ''What are you doing to me? I am responsible for these people,'' Erekat quoted Abbas as telling Olmert over lunch.

''How can I convince my people there is a peace process?'' REUTERS SZ PM0019

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