'Skeleton' of a deal awaits in Jericho

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to travel to Jericho on Monday for his first meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in a West Bank city, with the two, according to Israeli officials, to begin discussing the "skeleton" of an agreement. The Prime Minister's Office has been extremely vague about what "fundamental issues" Olmert is willing to talk about with Abbas. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week in Ramallah that Olmert had told her that he was ready to discuss "fundamental issues" with Abbas leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state. While PA officials said these issues included, among other things, the borders of the future Palestinian state, the Palestinian refugees, the status of settlements in the West Bank and the future of Jerusalem, sources in the Prime Minister's Office have said the "fundamental" issues had to do with building Palestinian governing institutions and discussing in broad strokes the content and contours of a future Palestinian state. Officials in Olmert's office said Sunday evening that Monday's meeting would concentrate on "the two-state solution," security issues and economic cooperation. A source in the Prime Minister's Office said the sides were working under the realization that US President George W. Bush had only a year and a half left in office and was keen on seeing progress. The Bush administration's desire to see progress, however, were tempered by Israeli security concerns and a reluctance - based on past experience - to move too fast. As a result, Israeli officials said, the idea that has emerged is for Olmert and Abbas to sketch out - during biweekly meetings before the regional meeting that Bush plans to convene in the fall - the skeleton of a future arrangement, and then to use that regional meeting to begin "filling in the details." For instance, the officials said, the two may very well agree before the regional meeting on an "agreement of principles" that will include a declaration of support for a two-state solution and the need to reach an accommodation on Jerusalem. Exactly where the two states would run, or how sovereignty would be divided in Jerusalem, would be left for later. The logic behind this approach, according to Israeli officials, is that it will strengthen Palestinian moderates by showing the Palestinians exactly what they have to gain by supporting moderate leadership rather than Hamas, while at the same time leaving the actual implementation of the agreement to a later date, when credible Palestinian institutions are developed to both provide security and to govern in an accountable manner. A source in the Prime Minister's Office confirmed that Olmert would likely discuss the two-state solution with Abbas on Monday, but would not confirm that discussions would take place on other core issues such as refugees or Jerusalem. One Israeli diplomatic official said his sense was that matters were farther advanced than the sides were letting on, and that there had been very close contacts between Olmert's top aides Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman and senior officials in Abbas's office in recent months - contacts that went well beyond trying to set up the biweekly Olmert-Abbas meetings. In a related development, the co-chairmen of the Socialist International's Mideast committee, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store, and the national secretary of Italy's Democrats of the Left Party Pietro Fassino, are arriving Monday for two days of talks. The two are scheduled to meet with President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as well as to hold talks with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. Norway, which is playing a lead role in renewing the activity of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee to raise money for the PA, has irked Israel over the last few months by its contacts with both Hamas and Hizbullah officials. Israeli diplomatic officials stressed that this was not a bilateral political visit by the Norwegian foreign minister, but rather a visit that was taking place under the umbrella of the Socialist International.