(photo credit: AP)
Israeli negotiators on Friday reported significant progress in talks with Palestinians Friday; a development which could pave the way to agreement on a joint statement to be issued ahead of the US-sponsored Middle East conference in Annapolis later this month.
Late Wednesday, Israeli sources said, Palestinian negotiators accepted Israeli security demands. These assert that progress following the conference will depend on the Palestinians fulfilling obligations set down in the first stage of the road map peace plan, namely the disarming and disbanding of all terror groups.
The breakthrough was reportedly achieved during a late-night meeting between chief Israeli and Palestinian negotiators Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei.
In response to the reports of progress in the talks, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team who claimed he had attended the said meeting between Qurei and Livni, told Israel radio that the "breakthrough" was being trumpeted for more than it was worth.
"I did not sense that there was any progress in the talks with the Israeli side," the negotiator said. He then laughed and further retorted, "What's new about the principle stating that the implementation of commitments depends upon [the Palestinians] fighting terror? Indeed, it appears in the road map, and we of course agreed to the road map."
Israeli sources also reported progress on Thursday, with Palestinian negotiators easing their demands that the peace conference lay out a specific timetable for statehood.
Israel expected to receive a formal confirmation from the US on Friday as to the date of the Annapolis peace conference. Reports Thursday night suggested President George W. Bush would host an opening evening for the delegations on November 25, with two or three days of summit talks to follow.
Israel will be represented at Annapolis by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and a negotiating team made up of officials from the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign and Defense ministries. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will head the Palestinian delegation, which will include former PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala).
Israeli sources confirmed Thursday night that the prime minister was considering a settlement freeze ahead of Annapolis. According to some Israeli officials, a de facto settlement freeze has already been in place for the last five years.
But in a report issued Wednesday, Peace Now said that despite the government's pledge to stop settlement expansion, dozens of new buildings had been erected inside existing settlements in the past year, and settlements were growing at a rate over three times faster than the average community growth in Israel.
Israeli and US sources said another visit to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected before the Maryland gathering.
PA officials said Thursday they were pleased with Israeli pledges to resume peace talks after the conference and were now less concerned about the statement of principles that had bogged down earlier negotiations. Israeli, Palestinian and US officials have all indicated in recent days that sticking points are slowly being resolved.
The Palestinians had insisted the document outline the general principles of a peace agreement and provide a timeline for granting them independence. The Israelis sought a vaguer, nonbinding agreement.
With negotiators making little progress on these issues, Palestinian officials said they were turning their focus away from the document and toward post-summit talks after receiving Israeli and US assurances that peace efforts would move into high gear after the conference.
"We were hoping for a document that would include defined limits and guiding resolutions for every difficult point," said Rafiq Husseini, a top aide to Abbas. "I'm not sure we'll get it."
He said he was pleased that there is now talk of reviving the road map.
Other Palestinian officials said Abbas was especially encouraged by Olmert's speech Sunday night, in which the Israeli leader suggested that a deal could be reached by the end of Bush's term in January 2009.
Olmert described the Annapolis summit as a "starting point" for talks on Palestinian statehood, including the core issues that have scuttled past peace efforts: the final borders between Israel and a future Palestine, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Olmert also said he is ready to carry out Israel's initial obligations under the road map - a freeze in Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank - and said he expected the Palestinians to meet their road map commitment of thwarting terrorism.
A US diplomat said Washington was encouraged by the latest Palestinian position, which appears to be in line with Israeli and American thinking.
"We've never envisioned Annapolis as a meeting that hammers out core issues, but rather sets the stage for parties to work on the core issues in an atmosphere of confidence," the diplomat said.
AP contributed to this article.