Israel-Palestinian final status talks start Monday

A033411042.jpgRAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the most serious peace talks in seven years would begin on Monday and must tackle all of the most sensitive issues including Jerusalem without delay.

Abbas said his chief negotiator, former Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, would meet with his Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as part of U.S. President George W. Bush’s push for a statehood agreement before leaving office.

“All the issues will be discussed … We told Bush that we will not accept delaying any of the final-status issues,” Abbas said in a speech, referring to statehood borders, the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, and Jewish settlements.

The meeting, which will be held in Jerusalem, comes four days after Bush’s visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank in which he set the goal of reaching a peace treaty before he leaves office in January 2009.

On the eve of Bush’s visit, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert authorized talks on all of the final-status issues.

But it is unclear whether Olmert is ready to push ahead with substantive talks on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem since doing so could prompt coalition partners, including the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, to quit the government.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel confirmed the talks would be held in Jerusalem but declined to say what issues would be discussed.

Israel and the Palestinians are at odds over the form of agreement they want to reach.

Israeli officials have said they are seeking a deal that would outline a “framework” for a future Palestinian state with implementation delayed until the Palestinians can ensure Israel’s security.

Abbas wants a final peace treaty to enable him to declare a Palestinian state by the end of 2008.

GETTING TALKS GOING

The first final-status talks in seven years were supposed to get under way soon after a U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November. But the Palestinians demanded Israel first commit to ceasing all settlement activity, as called for under the long-stalled “road map” peace plan.

Under U.S. pressure, Olmert responded with a de-facto halt to new construction in settlements in the West Bank, but he has not called off plans to build hundreds of new homes in an area near Jerusalem known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim.

That it took nearly seven weeks for Livni and Qurie to begin substantive talks underscored the hurdles facing Bush in getting the sides to settle their differences in the 12 months he has left in office.

Olmert said Bush assured him during his visit that the Palestinians would need to meet their security obligations under the road map before any peace deal was implemented.

It is unclear how Olmert and Abbas can close a deal. Abbas wields little power beyond the West Bank after Hamas Islamists seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.

Weakened by the 2006 Lebanon war, Olmert could face new calls to resign at the end of the month when a commission of inquiry issues its final report on the conflict.

While Bush has called settlement expansion an “impediment”, doubts remain over how much pressure he would be willing to put on key ally Israel to make compromises.

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