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Israel and the Palestinians can wrap up a final peace deal within two years, but the international climate for such talks might not remain favorable for long, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Thursday.
Sneh has formulated a new peace plan together with Defense Minister Amir Peretz. He is one of several leading officials, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to recently articulate new ideas for re-energizing peace efforts.
Sneh told an academic conference on Thursday that a peace deal was still possible, even though previous rounds collapsed over explosive issues such as the fate of disputed Jerusalem and Jewish settlements.
"Two years are enough to conclude a detailed agreement," Sneh said. "We should discuss, maybe for six months, the principles, and move forward about the details of final status agreement."
He appealed for urgent action, saying the timing was favorable because moderate Arab states want to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"We have an opportunity, but I don't know for how long will it last," he said. "We have to do it very, very quickly."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to meet in coming weeks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to explore ways to accelerate peacemaking. International Mideast negotiators are to meet ahead of that session with the same agenda.
Olmert and Abbas held their first substantive meeting on Dec. 23 in an effort to get long-stalled peace talks moving again. Olmert pledged to ease travel restrictions on Palestinians, and to transfer $100 million (Euro 77.47 million) in frozen funds to the Palestinians, whose finances have deteriorated sharply over the past year because of an international boycott of the militantly anti-Israel Hamas government.
But travel restrictions remain onerous, and nearly a month later, less than $10 million (Euro 7.7 million) in frozen funds have been released.
Abbas, whose Fatah faction is locked in a bloody power struggle with Hamas, needs the concessions to prove to the Palestinian people that there are benefits to engaging Israel in dialogue designed to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In related news, Abbas is to meet with Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, in the Syrian capital on Saturday to try to clinch an elusive agreement on forming a coalition government, representatives of both factions said.
Abbas hopes a Hamas-Fatah coalition would induce the West to lift the painful sanctions it imposed on the current Hamas-led government for refusing to disarm and recognize Israel's right to exist.
Previous rounds of talks foundered over disagreements on recognizing Israel and control of key Cabinet portfolios.
Also in Netanya, the head of the European mission monitoring operations at the Egypt-Gaza border urged Israel to stop restricting operations there, saying disruptions only promote "extremism and terror."
Israel, citing security alerts, has kept the Rafah terminal - Gaza's main gateway to the outside world - closed for about 80 percent of the time since Palestinian militants from Gaza kidnapped an Israeli soldier in June.
Depriving Gaza's 1.4 million people access to the rest of the world "only encourages more people to resort to extremism and terror," said -Lt. -Gen. Pietro Pistolese, an Italian.
At the same gathering, -Lt. -Gen. Keith Dayton, who arrived in the region in December 2005 with a mandate to help reform the Palestinian security forces, said his team was here for the long haul.
"We are not going away anytime soon," Dayton said in a rare public appearance.
Dayton said he works on projects designed to produce tangible results, such as improving security at the main cargo crossing between Israel and Gaza.
Israel has repeatedly closed the crossing - a frequent target of attacks by Palestinian militants - because of security alerts.
Movement through the border - about 1,000 trucks a month - is far below the minimum 400-a-day quota outlined in a November 2005 agreement on Gaza's frontiers, reached after Israel withdrew from the coastal strip.