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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met in Jerusalem on Sunday in what could be their final meeting. Kadima elects a new leader in less than three weeks, and Abbas's term ends in January.
Despite pledges to continue working for a "shelf agreement" by the end of the year, they gave no indication that progress had been made to render this possible.
Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said after the two-hour meeting - one hour with the negotiating teams present and another one-on-one - that the two sides reiterated their "commitment to the Annapolis process, to continuing negotiations, and toward a historic document."
Regev emphatically denied as "erroneous" reports that Olmert was interested in pushing for an interim document with the Palestinians that would chart progress that had been made up until now and serve as a framework agreement for a two-state solution, to be presented to the UN General Assembly later this month.
"What is needed is continuous, substantive and serious talks," Regev said. "There are no shortcuts. We are working on the Annapolis framework - no half-document or quarter-documents."
Despite the denials, the prospect of Olmert pushing through any kind of document now - just weeks before he is expected to be replaced as prime minister, and just four months before Abbas's term is set to expire, while it is not clear who will take over in the PA - was very much on the mind of the ministers at Sunday's cabinet meeting.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has come out squarely against pushing for a document before the UN meeting, said Olmert must not accelerate the peace process unnecessarily.
"I supported, and I continue to support, negations, but an agreement needs to reflect Israel's interests in a detailed manner," she told the cabinet. "We must not let time pressure cause us to make one of two bad mistakes and try to bridge large gaps in a way that will bring about an explosion, or compromise on critical issues for Israel in order to get results."
Livni took part in the first half of the Abbas-Olmert meeting, along with chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei.
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter also criticized Olmert in the cabinet, saying he was negotiating with the Palestinians without the backing of ministers and without updating them.
Prior to Sunday's cabinet meeting, Labor, Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai lamented that he was getting most of the details about the peace talks from the media. He also said Olmert had no legal or moral right to sign any agreement with the Palestinians.
"I don't think that there is public legitimacy, nor is it legal, to conduct negotiations - certainly not to reach an agreement - after he [Olmert] said he was going to resign," Yishai said.
Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim said, however, that as long as Olmert remained prime minister, he had full authority to continue with negotiations.
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that while Olmert was not interested in an interim agreement with the PA, he did want to reach a historic document before the end of the Bush administration that would deal with all issues but Jerusalem, leaving the capital to be dealt with at a later time in a different framework, perhaps under an international umbrella.
But Jerusalem is not the only issue proving that any kind of shelf agreement will be difficult to reach. According to diplomatic officials, the sides are still far apart regarding the refugee issue, with the Palestinians still demanding a right of return to Israel for Palestinian refuges, and Israel rejecting the idea out of hand, save for an unspecified number of humanitarian cases.
On the other hand, the parties have reportedly made a great deal of progress on border issues, excluding Jerusalem, with Israel reportedly willing to withdraw from some 93 percent of the West Bank - roughly along the lines of the security barrier under construction, but keeping the major settlement blocs. The Palestinians would be compensated with land in the Negev and a passage from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip.
Prior to Sunday's meeting, in full view of cameras and within ear shot of microphones, Olmert chastised Abbas for meeting with released Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar during his recent trip to Lebanon, saying he was "upset" by the meeting and that Abbas should not be meeting with murderers. Abbas did not respond.
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that while Abbas thanked Olmert for last week's release of 198 security prisoners and asked for additional prisoners to be released, the prime minister made no commitment on the issue.