Israel, Palestinians in final push for joint paper

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RAMALLAH, West Bank, Nov 20 (Reuters) Israel and the Palestinians are making a last-ditch effort under US and Arab pressure to prepare a joint document before a US-hosted peace conference next week, officials said today.

''I don't know if we can finalise the document. We will be meeting today, also,'' senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israeli Army Radio after late night talks between Israeli and Palestinian teams yesterday.

The paper is meant to address in general terms ''core'' issues such as borders, and the future of Jerusalem and millions of Palestinian refugees, without offering any specific solutions.

Israeli officials have sought to play down the importance of a joint document, asserting that the centrepiece of the November 26-27 conference in Annapolis, Maryland, would be a deal to relaunch formal talks on establishing a Palestinian state.

''It was decided that a last-ditch effort would be exerted in the coming few days to reach a document that would be presented to the Annapolis conference,'' said Ahmed Qurie, the Palestinians' chief negotiator.

Washington has been pushing hard for an agreement on a paper, seeking to ensure the participation in Annapolis of key Arab states, including Saudi Arabia.

As part of that effort, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert travelled to Egypt today for talks with President Hosni Mubarak.

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

''The Palestinians and Israelis are coming under immense pressure from the Americans and some Arab states to make a final effort to come up with a document. They were asked to meet for a few days to bridge the gaps,'' a senior Palestinian official said.

''There is a draft document the sides are working on but the gaps are still too wide.'' A US State Department spokesman in Washington said he was confident there would be ''a good, solid document'' agreed.

A senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that as a fallback, the United States has been telling both sides they could present their separate positions at Annapolis if they failed to agree on a joint paper.

In that case, the aide said, US President George W Bush would ''set out in his speech (at the conference) a new and detailed version of a two-state vision and how to get there''.

Israel, the Palestinians and the United States have said they hope a statehood agreement could be finalised before Bush, saddled with the legacy of the unpopular war in Iraq, leaves office in January 2009.

Abbas and Olmert met yesterday for talks that followed an Israeli decision to release 441 Palestinian prisoners in a bid to bolster the Palestinian leader, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists in June.

Like Bush and 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 PD SSC1518

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