olmert abbas 224.88.
(photo credit: GPO [file])
Israeli officials on Sunday downplayed as "domestic Palestinian politics" Palestinian threats to ask the US to postpone the Middle East conference it is sponsoring later this year over what exactly that meeting is supposed to produce.
The dispute came four days before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to visit.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has his domestic political situation to think about, seemed to be playing to the right wing of his coalition when he said at a meeting of ministers from Kadima and the Gil Pensioners Party that nothing more than a joint statement would be discussed at the proposed meeting.
"We are talking about a joint statement that we hope will be the focus of the international summit in November," he said. "When we reach a statement, I will bring it to the cabinet. I don't plan to hide it. There is a difference between a declaration of principles and a statement."
Olmert said that what was being discussed with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was a nonbinding declaration of principles. "Such a declaration of principles will not be authorized in secret and will be presented to the cabinet, and if need be, to the Knesset as well," Olmert said.
Olmert and Abbas agreed at their Jerusalem meeting last week to establish negotiating teams to hammer out this declaration.
PA officials, however, expressed disappointment with Olmert's announcement that what was being discussed was nothing more than a joint statement.
"I don't see the need to go to an international conference just to issue a joint Israeli-Palestinian communique," a senior PA official in Ramallah said. "We were hoping to reach a deal on a declaration of principles that would address fundamental issues such as the status of Jerusalem, the final borders of the Palestinian state and the right of return for Palestinian refugees."
Another PA official told The Jerusalem Post that a joint statement would be "insufficient."
He said Abbas's position was that the two parties needed to reach an agreement on all the fundamental issues ahead of the conference. "If Olmert wants to issue a terse statement about these issues, we won't cooperate with him. Neither will the majority of the Arabs," the PA official said.
PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said a joint Israeli-Palestinian statement was not on the table. "This is not our goal," he said. "What we are seeking is a detailed agreement on all the final-status issues, with a timetable for its implementation under the supervision of the international community."
Israeli officials, however, said these statements should be seen within the context of the PA's need to show its public that it will accept nothing less than a detailed discussion of a Palestinian state.
Fatah spokesman Ahmed Abdel Rahman, meanwhile, accused Israel of seeking to postpone the Washington conference because "it does not want peace."
Israel, he added, was trying to either thwart the conference or to delay it. "We call upon the US to exert pressure on Israel to change its policies," Abdel Rahman said.
Rice is expected to arrive on Wednesday for a two-day, one-night visit.
Husam Tawil, an independent legislator from the Gaza Strip, warned Sunday that under the current circumstances, Palestinian attendance at the US-sponsored conference would only do harm. "Palestinian participation in the conference carries many risks for the Palestinians," he said. "No one believes that there can be a real breakthrough as long as the Palestinians are weak and divided. We must resolve our differences and divisions before the conference."
Abbas, who is scheduled to travel to New York next week to attend the UN General Assembly meeting, will seize the opportunity to garner support for the Palestinian position ahead of the conference. Former PA minister Nabil Shaath told the Ramallah-based Al-Ayyam daily he did not rule out the possibility that Abbas would meet with US President George W. Bush on the margins of the meeting.
"President Abbas will hold intensive diplomatic meetings aimed at ensuring the success of the international conference, with the hope that it will result in the establishment of a Palestinian state and exert pressure on Israel to halt the construction of the racist separation fence and its measures in Jerusalem," Shaath said.
"President Abbas will try to establish an international lobby that will push toward achieving real peace on the basis of the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."