January 7, 2008 / 12:28 PM / 12 years ago

Olmert, Abbas try to close gaps ahead of Bush visit

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet on Tuesday in a last-minute attempt to get stalled peace talks going before a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem January 6, 2008. Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are considering meeting ahead of a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush, an Israeli government official said on Sunday. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Six weeks have passed since Bush convened a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, to launch the first talks in seven years with the aim of clinching a deal before he leaves office in a year that would establish a Palestinian state.

But the two sides, bogged down by a dispute over Jewish settlement expansion on occupied land near Jerusalem, have yet to set up working groups to try to resolve many of the thorniest issues in the conflict.

Talks on Monday between the lead negotiators — Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurie — ended without announcement of an expected agreement on the groups and how they will proceed.

Olmert and Abbas will continue the negotiations at a meeting with Livni and Qurie on Tuesday, a day before Bush begins his first presidential visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank.

The delay in reaching a deal on how to conduct the talks underscored the large hurdles facing Bush in meeting his goal of getting Olmert and Abbas to reach an agreement within a year.

It is unclear how the three weakened leaders hope to close the gaps over borders, and the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees before Bush leaves office in January 2009.

Abbas wields little authority beyond the Israeli-occupied West Bank after Hamas Islamists seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. Israel has stepped up attacks in Gaza in recent weeks against militants who fire cross-border rockets.

DOUBTS

Olmert was weakened by the 2006 war in Lebanon and could face new calls to resign at the end of the month when a commission of inquiry issues its final report on Israel’s deficiencies in the conflict with Hezbollah guerrillas.

Doubts remain over Bush’s readiness to use his final months in office to push Israel, a key ally, to make compromises.

Ahead of Bush’s arrival, Abbas made clear his goal was to push for a full halt to Jewish settlement activity.

Bush has called settlement expansion on occupied land where Palestinians seek statehood an “impediment” and said he would raise the issue with Olmert.

Olmert last week ordered a de-facto halt to new Israeli projects in the West Bank, but 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.

Construction there has been the main source of disagreement with the Palestinians and has drawn fire from Washington.

Olmert has conditioned implementing any peace deal with the Palestinians on Abbas first proving his mettle against militants. While Abbas had made some progress on security, Israel said the Palestinians still have a way to go.

Olmert and Abbas are expected on Tuesday to agree on a framework for the final-status talks.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Livni and Qurie, backed by teams of experts, would conduct the main final-status negotiations, largely in secret, officials on both sides said.

Working groups, once they are established, would tackle specific issues, such as water or economic cooperation.

Olmert and Abbas would intervene to settle disputes between the teams when they arise, officials said.

Editing by Elizabeth Piper

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