Israel's top decision-makers are against discussing the border issue first in future negotiations with the Palestinians, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Separating final borders from other core issues would allow negotiators to avoid the thorny settlement construction dispute.
In recent days, it has been widely reported that the issue of permanent borders would be the first one tackled in future Israeli-Palestinian talks - the idea being that once they are decided on, the contentious issues regarding settlement building would dissolve, and Israel would clearly be able to build in the settlements that would fall inside the negotiated border.
There have been reports of a US interest in solving the border issue within the next nine months, before the end of the construction moratorium in the settlements, so it would be clear afterward where Israel could and could not build.
But the problem with that approach, according to a senior official in Jerusalem, is that it would mean Israel relinquishing land and settlements without getting anything in return, and then having to begin discussing the more difficult issues of Jerusalem, refugees and the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state.
"In this case you give up territorial assets, and what have you done?" asked the official. "You haven't ended the conflict, and haven't dealt with refugees or Jerusalem. This idea is a nonstarter for all the ministers, from Left or Right."
The official said that from Jerusalem's point of view, the idea that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed must be the guiding principle in future talks, just as it has been in previous rounds.
The official's comments came as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Monday that he did not want to resume peace talks with Israel on an "unclear basis," and reiterated his demand for a complete cessation of settlement construction.
Abbas, who was speaking to reporters after meeting in Sharm e-Sheikh with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said he reached understandings with Cairo on the required terms for resuming the peace talks.
He said the two sides agreed that Jerusalem must be included in the talks and that Israel should freeze all settlement construction.
"In principle, we have no objections to returning to the negotiating table or holding any kind of meetings," Abbas said. "Nor are we setting preconditions."
Asked if he would be willing to hold a tripartite meeting with Mubarak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Abbas said: "We have said - and we continue to say - that we are ready to resume the talks once settlement construction is halted and international terms of reference are recognized as the basis for the negotiations."
In response to another question about whether he saw Netanyahu's latest ideas [which were discussed during last week's talks with Mubarak] as encouraging, Abbas said: "We will judge these ideas after the visit of [Egyptian] Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to the US. They will discuss these ideas in Washington and everything will become clear afterwards. I don't want to judge ideas that now seem to be unclear."
Senior officials in Jerusalem said Abbas seemed to be leaving the door open for negotiations, and that the nuance and tone of his comments were not as unequivocally against entering into negotiations with Israel as in the past.
For instance, the official said, this was the first time in a while that Abbas has said he was not opposed to entering into negotiations or holding meetings with the Netanyahu government. The overall assessment in Jerusalem is that there has been a bit of a change in the "music" coming from the PA.
This apparently was what Netanyahu had in mind when he said at the Likud faction meeting on Monday that "in recent weeks, there has been a change of atmosphere. I hope that the time is now ripe to move the peace process forward."
He said that Palestinian preconditions for talks had wasted precious time that could have been spent negotiating a real agreement, rather than a framework for talks.
"I believe that negotiations about the nature of negotiations have delayed the process enough and should be dropped," the prime minister said.
He said it was obvious that each side would be free to raise its positions around the negotiating table. But, he said, Israel insisted that the results of the negotiations be determined in talks at the end of the process, and certainly not by preconditions at the very beginning.
Meanwhile, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Abbas, accused Israel of "continuing to avoid its commitments" to the peace process. He said that Israel was continuing settlement construction and military incursions into Palestinian communities, while also ignoring the road map for peace in the Middle East.
Abu Rudaineh, who is accompanying Abbas on his current tour of a number of Arab countries, said that the PA did not want to hold meetings to waste time. The PA, he added, was prepared to return to the negotiations, but only on the basis of a freeze of settlement construction, and if the ultimate goal was clear. Abbas is insisting that the framework of the talks be a Palestinian state with the pre-1967 lines as its borders, a formula that Netanyahu does not accept.
Abu Rudaineh explained that "entering negotiations with Israel without clarity means that the talks would be fruitless."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman meanwhile met on Monday with visiting Quartet envoy Tony Blair and said that it was important to hold a "frank dialogue" with the Palestinians, without creating any illusions that would only cause more frustration and lead to violence.
Lieberman said it was unrealistic to solve the border issue in nine months, and - as the Palestinians are demanding - to set a two-year deadline for reaching a final agreement.
According to a statement put out by his office, Lieberman said that what was needed was to start direct talks without committing to a deadline.
Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, who is the only resident of Judea and Samaria among the Likud ministers, said he warned Netanyahu on Sunday against going too far to bring about negotiations with the Palestinians. He said that he and other Likud MKs were "getting ready to fight" against diplomatic concessions, just in case.
MK Danny Danon intended to criticize Netanyahu on diplomatic issues in Monday's Likud faction meeting, but the prime minister insisted that following his own statement about potential talks with the PA, the two-hour meeting would deal solely with the Likud's stance on the loyalty oath bill of Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem, which is unlikely to be brought to a vote due to the Labor Party's veto.
Danon charged that Netanyahu was trying to avoid criticism. He warned security cabinet ministers in meetings on Monday that "Netanyahu will end up leading us back to pre-1967 borders."
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.