Israel, Palestinians, U.S. set benchmarks for talks

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Under U.S. auspices, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are drawing up lists of confidence-building steps to help guide talks they have agreed to hold every two weeks, U.S. diplomats said on Tuesday.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during their meeting in Jerusalem April 15, 2007, in this picture released by the Palestinian Press Office (PPO). REUTERS/Omar Rashidi/PPO/Handout

The U.S.-driven effort is meant to ensure incremental progress on day-to-day issues and build trust between the parties, the diplomats said.

The benchmarks, sent to Washington for review, include such things as removing Israeli checkpoints in the occupied West Bank, expanding operations at Gaza border crossings and training Palestinian security forces.

“It is something that’s being done and being done jointly,” said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. She declined to offer details.

Palestinian officials had no immediate comment.

At Washington’s behest, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas launched on Sunday the first in a series of meetings they promised U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to hold every two weeks.

Six years after Israel and the Palestinians last conducted final-status negotiations, the United States is seeking to shape a “political horizon” for both sides while it tries to win Arab support for its policies in Iraq and towards Iran, and sideline Hamas Islamists that lead a Palestinian unity government.

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Going into the talks, Israel said it was prepared to discuss the legal, economic and governmental structures of a future Palestinian state but not core issues such as its borders and the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Neither Olmert nor Abbas appears to be in a position to make bold moves towards a final peace deal at this time. Olmert’s approval rating is in single digits and Abbas’s Fatah faction shares power with Hamas, a group that does not recognize Israel.

“Both sides need help understanding and putting together benchmarks. Each side largely sets its own benchmarks. We’re helping facilitate that. It’s not us (the U.S. government) dictating specifics,” one U.S. official said.

“The idea of having benchmarks is setting goals that can be met in a certain time frame... it provides accountability on the working level,” the official said.

“These aren’t final-status issues at all. These are small steps that each side is doing to build confidence.”

Another U.S. official said the benchmarks are being sent to the State Department for review, helping Rice keep tabs on the parties between her frequent visits to the region.

At Sunday’s talks, Olmert and Abbas agreed to hold their next meeting in the West Bank city of Jericho, an aide to the Palestinian leader said.