Olmert reaffirms settlement curbs ahead of conference

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JERUSALEM, Nov 19 (Reuters) Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to win wide Arab participation in a US-led peace conference by reaffirming today a pledge not to build new Jewish settlements and to uproot smaller outposts.

In his remarks to the cabinet, Olmert did not spell out whether he would also freeze construction within Israel's existing settlements in the occupied West Bank, as demanded by Palestinians who want the land for a future state.

''Let's be honest. We committed ourselves in the 'road map' not to build new settlements,'' Olmert said, referring to a stalled 2003 peace plan promoted by the United States.

''There will be no new settlements and no land confiscations'' from the Palestinians, he was quoted by his spokeswoman as telling the cabinet, which met a week before the conference on statehood convenes in Annapolis, Maryland.

Israel has not built a new settlement in the West Bank for years but settlers have set up several dozen hilltop outposts without government approval. Olmert has repeatedly vowed to remove them but has set no date.

Saudi Arabia, which has not said whether it would attend the November 26-27 conference, had demanded a ''freeze of settlements'' before the conference. It was unclear whether Olmert's remarks would go far enough to persuade Riyadh to participate.

At the cabinet session, Olmert was expected to win approval for the release of 450 Palestinian prisoners, a gesture aimed at bolstering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who wants 2,000 freed. Both leaders were to meet later in the day.

''I will leave at the beginning of the week for the Annapolis meeting,'' Olmert told ministers, voicing hope Israel and the Palestinians could still reach agreement ''on the procedural side'' of the conference.

Abbas's chief negotiator said Israeli and Palestinian teams had failed to make progress on a pre-conference joint document that would address in general terms core issues such as borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

The negotiator, Ahmed Qurie, said he would hold no more talks with his Israeli counterpart.

EGYPTIAN VISIT In a surprise announcement, Olmert's office said the prime minister planned to go to Egypt tomorrow for talks with President Hosni Mubarak.

His trip appeared to be part of a diplomatic effort to ensure broad Arab participation in the Annapolis conference, which both sides see as a launching pad for formal negotiations on Palestinian statehood.

Arab League foreign ministers meet in Cairo on Friday to decide whether to attend the conference.

In Cairo, presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad was quoted by state news agency MENA as saying Murbark would see Olmert as ''part of Egyptian efforts to promote consultations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides to reach a common political document''.

US and Israeli officials said the paper was not a precondition for the gathering, called by President George W Bush to bolster Abbas and launch long-stalled peace talks after Hamas Islamists took over the Gaza Strip in June.

Olmert told his cabinet the post-Annapolis negotiations would be ''very intensive and serious and deal with all of the core issues that are part of the process that should lead to a two-state solution''.

Like Abbas, Olmert has been weakened politically. He faces police investigations over alleged corruption, which he has denied, and the results before the end of the year of an official inquiry into his handling of the 2006 Lebanon war.

REUTERS SYU KP1728

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