Chief Palestinian negotiator: US proposes new Middle East talks

Despite former statement, Ahmed Qureia tells Rice agreement with Israel possible by end of year. Top negotiator Erekat: Deal is doable, but nothing agreed

“Thus shall he do in the most strong holds with a strange god, whom he shall acknowledge and increase with glory: and he shall cause them to rule over many,and shall divide the land for gain

The United States has proposed new talks in a push to reach a deal on Palestinian statehood before President George W. Bush leaves office in January, the chief Palestinian negotiator said on Saturday.

Ahmed Qureia said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had invited the Israelis and Palestinians to a series of trilateral discussions in New York and Washington. He added that if Israel changed some of its positions on key issues, “we can reach a deal by the end of this year.”

Earlier this month Qureia said it would “take a miracle” to reach agreement in 2008. It is unclear what has changed since. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said some progress has been made and a deal is “doable, but none of the issues have been agreed yet.”

Qureia said negotiations were at a similar point to the one they reached in 2000 when statehood talks in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba ended without agreement. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas launched the first round of peace talks in seven years in Annapolis, Maryland last November.

Bitter disputes over Jewish settlements in the West Bank have undercut US efforts to reach a peace agreement this year. Olmert is involved in a corruption scandal that could force him from office and further disrupt peace talks.

His spokesman Mark Regev said: “Israel remains committed to the Annapolis framework of trying to reach a historic joint document by the end of this year. Important progress has happened but much work remains ahead.”

Negotiators from both sides said progress has been made on some issues and they had started drafting a position paper to try to narrow the gaps between them. Israeli officials say headway has been made on the key question of borders.

Among the most difficult stumbling blocks in talks have been the fate of Jerusalem and of Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements, borders, security, and water. Palestinian negotiators said they had rejected an Israeli proposal to set aside the issues of refugees and Jerusalem for three years.

Rice intensifies peace effort
Qureia said the Palestinians were seeking a state in the West Bank and Gaza, lands Israel occupied during the Six-Day War, and were ready for a swap of equal areas of territory with Israel. He said the Palestinians had rejected Israeli proposals to annex large settlement blocs in the West Bank and negotiate about the rest of the land.

“The Israelis began with one position and then changed it, based on accepting facts created on the ground … We have rejected this Israeli approach,” Qureia said.

He said the Palestinians would reject any suggestion of an Israeli military presence in a future Palestinian state but would not object to the deployment of foreign or United Nations troops to oversee the implementation of a final deal.

In a bid to push the two sides to reach a deal this year, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met negotiators from both sides in Berlin last week on the margins of an international donors’ conference.

Qureia said Rice had suggested holding more trilateral meetings in July in Washington, in September in New York on the margins of a United Nations General Assembly meeting, and again on November 15 in Washington.

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