abbas stern 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Aides to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to hold another meeting next week to pave the way for talks between the two leaders, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told The Jerusalem Post Sunday.
Last week Erekat held a covert meeting with Olmert's foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman and chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz as part of preparations for a long-anticipated summit between Abbas and Olmert. The next meeting should be held after Succot ends on Saturday, according to Erekat. Though technically that could be as early as Sunday, Erekat said he expected the advisers' discussion to be held toward the end of the week.
In Washington: Take any opportunity to talk
But Erekat said the sides "have a long way to go" before the ground work would be complete and wouldn't speculate on whether the Olmert-Abbas meeting would come by the end of the month.
Both Erekat and a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said that Israel would be willing to hold the meeting even if Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped on June 25, hadn't been released. Previous plans for a meeting between Olmert and Abbas were shelved after the kidnapping.
"It's never been a condition," the official said, noting that Shalit's release is a subject of constant attention by the office.
He added that the talks would focus on the general issues connected to the Palestinians and referred to Olmert's previous statements that there is room for a dialogue with moderates.
Erekat, denying Palestinian media reports that the first meeting had been unsuccessful because of Israeli demands regarding Shalit, said, "We both agreed the meeting will be [held] without preconditions."
He added that the top Palestinian demand is the release of prisoners from Israeli jails. Elsewhere, Palestinians have pointed to the transfer of tax revenue held up since the election of Hamas and the opening of the crossings in and out of the Gaza Strip as major concerns.
But Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog singled out Shalit as the major obstacle between the two sides.
"The Shalit issue is the main stumbling block," he said. "I don't think that the issues are so far apart."
He supported Olmert's attitude toward moderates. "There's a joint interest of strengthening moderate coalitions in the region," he said.
The planning comes as both leaders face looming crises within their own governments. Olmert is trying to hold his governing coalition and his Kadima party together, both flagging amid widespread disappointment at the handling of the war in Lebanon.
Abbas, meanwhile, has been unsuccessfully trying to convince Hamas, to recognize Israel.
The Bush administration, facing its own political pressure, has also shown signs of greater involvement in the peace process, with such a meeting between Abbas and Olmert a tangible sign of momentum.
Etgar Lefkovits contributed to this report.