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(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is holding "serious discussions" with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to put together an agreement of principles before a regional conference to be held in November, President Shimon Peres said Wednesday.
Peres's comments came during a meeting with outgoing UN Middle East envoy Michael Williams. Peres's comments came the same day that Abbas said Israel's intensified operations in the Gaza Strip raised doubts about the country's desire to make peace with the Palestinians.
IAF air strikes on Gaza over the last three days killed 13 Palestinians, including a senior Hamas commander and three Islamic Jihad men.
In a statement released by Abbas's office, the chairman asserted that Israel's continued policy would ensure that the negotiations and the peace process bear no fruit.
Peres also told Williams that Israel should not get involved in the internal Palestinian dispute between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.
Olmert has said that in his recent meetings with Abbas there was a discussion about "fundamental principles," with widespread speculation - not confirmed by the Prime Minister's Office - that the goal was to come up with an agreement of principles for the establishment of a Palestinian state on some 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza.
Western diplomatic officials, however, have in recent days lowered expectations regarding the conference, which US President George W. Bush declared would take place some time in the autumn, and be chaired by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The officials said that few expect that Olmert and Abbas - in the next few weeks - would be able to reach any kind of agreement on issues that have eluded the two sides for so long: borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
Rather, the officials said, what was more realistic was that the two would come up with an agreement on "a way to move forward." What this meant, they said, was that Israel and the PA would likely agree at the regional conference on future meetings where the core issues would be hashed out.
"Any agreement reached before the conference will be about the need to keep talking, not substance," the officials said.
The officials warned against expecting a big breakthrough. "The idea is to get together in front of other parties whose good graces you want, and then push things along slowly," they said.
Among the other parties that both the US and Israel want to see at the table are the Saudis, and the officials said the US was quietly trying to make sure that the Saudis do attend the meeting. The US believes that bringing countries like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to the conference would both formally consolidate a coalition of moderate states, and also lead to more public support in Israel for diplomatic moves.
Rice is expected to come back to the region, she was here some three weeks ago, in mid-September to, among other things, discuss the regional gathering. So far, there has been no announcement of when or where the gathering would take place, nor who would be involved. Williams, meanwhile, is here on his final visit as UN envoy. He was recently appointed Britain's Middle East envoy, a position he will take up in September. No replacement for Williams at the UN has yet been announced.