US confident on West Asia talks, joint document

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WASHINGTON, Nov 20 (Reuters) The United States said it was confident its planned West Asia conference will launch Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and that both sides will agree on a joint document to be presented there.

US President George W Bush is expected to host the meeting at Annapolis, Maryland, probably on November 27, that will kick off an attempt to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking before he leaves office in January 2009.

''We're confident that once the invites go out that there will be a positive reaction and that Annapolis will serve as a starting point for negotiations between the two sides and there will be a good solid document that's been agreed upon between the Israelis and the Palestinians,'' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

While the meeting is likely to take place on November 27, there are also expected to be related discussions held in Washington the day before and after.

McCormack also welcomed reports that the Israeli government has agreed to release 441 Palestinian prisoners and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had reaffirmed a pledge not to build new Jewish settlements.

''Our view is that the steps that the Israeli government have announced are positive, confidence-building measures in the run-up to Annapolis,'' he said.

The Annapolis meeting is the Bush administration's most serious effort to resolve the six-decade Israeli-Palestinian conflict but it faces huge obstacles, including divisions among the Palestinians and Olmert's own political weakness.

The Palestinian territories are split between the West Bank, which is controlled by President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, and the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas Islamist faction seized control from Fatah in June.

Abbas is expected to attend the Annapolis meeting but it is unclear whether he can deliver on any peace deal he might eventually strike with the Israelis given Hamas' opposition.

Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of Israel, will not be invited.

The United States has not yet announced who will be invited to the meeting, but US officials have said they plan to include key Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, which do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

US officials hope that if they come it will provide political cover for Abbas to make compromises on sensitive issues like the future of Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem.

They also believe that the prospect of a wider peace with the Arab world make make it easier for Olmert to sell any deal.

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.

US and Israeli officials said a joint document was not a precondition for the gathering, which may offer a chance for Bush to try to add to a legacy likely to be dominated by the unpopular war in Iraq.

REUTERS DKS RN0507

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