Olmert’s 11th-hour pitch to Palestinians rebuffed

A050464214.jpgJERUSALEM (Reuters) – Ehud Olmert appealed on Monday for a partial peace deal with the Palestinians before he steps down as Israeli prime minister, but President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the idea on the eve of talks between the leaders.

Olmert told a parliamentary committee that Israel could not afford to wait any longer to clinch a deal on statehood borders because the price territorially, already “very high”, could become “unbearable”.

But Israeli, Palestinian and Western officials called Olmert’s 11th-hour bid for a deal a long shot given Abbas’s public opposition to any partial accord.

Ahead of what could be a make-or-break meeting on Tuesday between the leaders, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, headed by Abbas, said it would “reject” anything short of a comprehensive accord that settles all of the core issues, including the future of Jerusalem.

Olmert has called for postponing negotiations on Jerusalem and has ruled out accepting the “right of return” for Palestinians refugees, another central Palestinian demand.

“The chances of reaching an agreement this year are weak,” the PLO body said in a statement.

In lieu of a surprise breakthrough, Israeli and Western officials said the two sides could issue a joint statement summarizing the talks so far and committing to continue the negotiations after Olmert leaves office.

Facing possible indictment in corruption probes, Olmert has promised to resign after his Kadima party holds an election on Wednesday to replace him. He could stay on as caretaker premier for weeks or months until a new government is formed.

Israeli officials expressed doubt a lame duck would have enough authority to make such far-reaching concessions. “It’s over,” one said.

DEAL “POSSIBLE”

But Olmert brushed aside the skeptics in closed-door testimony to a key Knesset committee, saying a deal was still achievable in 2008, the timeline set by U.S. President George W. Bush, who leaves office in January.

“It is possible to reach understandings about borders, security and refugees and then, for the first time, the shape of a Palestinian state will be clear and we will have a recognized international border,” Olmert was quoted by aides as saying.

Olmert and Abbas will meet in Jerusalem starting at 9 p.m. (1800 GMT), both sides announced.

But even Olmert’s closest allies in government are openly dismissive of the effort. Vice Premier Haim Ramon said on Sunday a peace deal was unlikely, both this year and next.

Olmert has offered few details in public about the negotiations, but he said on Monday a deal meant Israel would have to compensate the Palestinians for land it hopes to keep by “close to a 1-to-1 ratio”.

According to Western and Palestinian officials, Olmert has proposed withdrawing from some 93 percent of the occupied West Bank, plus all of the Gaza Strip.

In exchange for West Bank settlement blocs that Israel wants to keep, Olmert proposed about a 5 percent land swap giving the Palestinians a desert territory adjacent to the Gaza Strip.

In addition to not addressing the thorny issue of Jerusalem, Olmert would put off the deal’s implementation until Abbas reins in militants and re-establishes control of the Gaza Strip, which Hamas seized a year ago.

Abbas rejected that proposal because it would not provide for a contiguous Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, a spokesman said.

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