'Palestinians easing demands for parley'

PA officials pleased with Olmert's statements, not as insistent on drafting document before Annapolis.

Encouraged by a conciliatory speech by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian negotiators have eased their demands that the upcoming Annapolis peace conference lay out a plan for statehood, fueling new optimism among the summit's participants. Palestinian officials said Thursday they were pleased with Israeli pledges to resume peace talks after the conference - and were now less concerned about a pre-summit understanding that had bogged down earlier negotiations. Israeli, Palestinian and US officials have all indicated in recent days that sticking points are slowly being resolved, clearing the way for the conference to take place at the end of this month. In a speech Sunday night, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that "now is the time" to sign a deal. The following day Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he had received "encouraging signs" from Israel. Standing next to Abbas, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was "tremendously impressed by the seriousness" of both sides. The sudden shift in tone contrasts sharply with disagreements that have plagued the summit preparations for weeks. Those differences focused on a joint document the sides hoped to present at the conference. The Palestinians had insisted the document outline the general principles of a future peace agreement and provide a timeline for granting them independence, while Israel 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 will move into high gear after the conference. The meeting is expected to take place around November 26. "We were hoping for a document that would define the limits and guiding resolution 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" - a long-stalled US peace plan that envisions a Palestinian state. Other Palestinian officials said Abbas was especially encouraged by Olmert's speech Sunday night, during which the prime minister suggested that a deal could be reached by the end of the Bush administration in January 2009. Olmert described the Annapolis summit as a "starting point" for talks on Palestinian statehood, including the so-called 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 construction in West Bank settlements - and said he expected the Palestinians to meet their road map commitment of disarming terrorists. Israeli officials declined to discuss the status of pre-summit negotiations but said Olmert is serious about using the conference as a launching pad. "Annapolis is not about implementation. It's about defining the issues, showing how we go forward without giving the solutions right now," said Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin. A US diplomat said Washington is encouraged by the latest Palestinian position, which appears to jibe 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," said the diplomat, who asked that his name not be used in accordance with state department policy. An official date for the conference, and formal invitations, are expected to be announced within the next 10 days.