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Olmert, Abbas and negotiating teams to meet

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and their negotiating teams will meet on Wednesday to try to narrow differences over a U.S.-led conference on Palestinian statehood.

Israeli government spokesman David Baker said the two leaders would meet one-on-one at Olmert’s residence in Jerusalem before huddling with negotiating teams “charged with drafting the joint statement to be given at the international meeting”.

“The two leaders will assess what they have reached during previous talks and take it one step further,” Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said without offering any specifics.

Olmert is considering giving Abbas’s security forces greater control over one or two West Bank towns, Israeli and Western officials said.

Olmert is seeking a broad-brush joint statement for the U.S.-sponsored conference, expected to take place in Annapolis, Maryland in mid-to-late November. Abbas wants an explicit “framework” agreement with a timetable for final-status negotiations and for implementing any accords.

No major breakthroughs were expected at the first formal meeting of the negotiating teams on Wednesday.

Israel has released close to 90 Palestinian prisoners this week as a goodwill gesture to Abbas. Abbas’s office welcomed the move but said more needed to be done.

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It was unclear to what extent Olmert was prepared to delve deeply into the “final status” issues key to the establishment of a Palestinian state -- borders, the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

“There is no one to deal with now on permanent-status agreements,” Israel’s public security minister, Avi Dichter, told Israel’s Channel 10 television on the eve of the meeting.

He said it would be premature to go beyond an agreement on statehood principles at the U.S.-sponsored conference because the talks were at an early stage and the Palestinians were still trying to rein in militant groups.

“Without this happening, I think any step towards a permanent solution is doomed to fail and is an adventure,” Dichter said.

Olmert has been weakened politically since last year’s war in Lebanon, raising doubts among Israelis and Palestinians about his ability to deliver on peace promises.

Abbas, too, wields limited power since Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in June.

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During their meeting on Wednesday, the leaders will sit in a Sukkah, an outdoor enclosure partially open to the sky which observant Jews use for meals marking the Sukkoth festival. A Sukkah is used to commemorate the biblical story of how Jews came to the Holy Land from Egypt after a 40-year desert sojourn.

Additional reporting by Avida Landau in Jerusalem and Wafa Amr in Ramallah

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