Reaching an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of the year would require a "miracle," Ahmed Qurei, the head of the Palestinian Authority negotiating team, said Wednesday. His remarks contradict statements made recently by Israeli government officials to the effect that "significant progress" has been achieved in the negotiations over the past few months. PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salaam Fayad, also voiced pessimism Wednesday regarding the prospects of achieving a deal with Israel before US President George W. Bush's left office. Qurei told Fatah activists during a meeting in Ramallah that no "tangible" results had been achieved in the negotiations that followed November's peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. The gap between the Israelis and Palestinians remains very wide, he said, especially over the core issues of Jerusalem, refugees, the borders of a Palestinian state and the settlements in the West Bank. "Although we have formed joint committees to discuss all these issues, we still haven't made any progress," Qurei said. Referring to the ongoing dispute between Fatah and Hamas, Qurei called for resuming talks between the two movements. "The continued divisions don't serve the interests of anyone," he said. "Hamas must end its coup in the Gaza Strip and return to national dialogue." Abbas, who chaired the weekly cabinet meeting in Ramallah, told the ministers that he opposed pursuing the negotiations while Israel continued to build new homes in the settlements and in east Jerusalem. "If the Israelis want serious negotiations with sincere intentions, they must stop the settlement construction, release all Palestinian prisoners and remove the checkpoints and barriers," he said. "Unfortunately, the obstacles [to achieving an agreement] are increasing every day." It was inconceivable, he said, that the Palestinians were negotiating over Jerusalem while the city was being "devoured" by Israel on a daily basis. Abbas said the Palestinians welcomed news of the resumption of talks between Israel and Syria, adding that he did not believe this development would come at the expense of the Israeli-Palestinian track. Speaking in Ramallah, Fayad said Israel's "policy of settlement and creating facts on the ground" would not bring peace and security. Israel's only option, he said, was to accept the two-state solution and end the occupation. "The Palestinians' desire to achieve independence and freedom has not - and won't - be undermined," Fayad said.