Israel is concerned over a hardening of Palestinian positions ahead of the first meeting, to be held on Tuesday, of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams working on a joint statement before November's regional peace conference.
A senior government official close to the talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said "the real gaps between the parties will be revealed for the first time" at the meeting.
Abbas and Olmert will meet at Olmert's Jerusalem residence, where the PA chairman and his team will be guests in Olmert's sukkah.
Meanwhile, Abbas met Sunday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo for talks that centered on the agenda for the upcoming conference.
"We have to go there with a clear and specific document, after which it could be possible to start detailed negotiations on what we call final status issues," Abbas said after the meeting.
"I believe that going there with a general statement would not be beneficial," he said.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would visit the region in mid-October "for consultations with the Palestinian and Israeli parties, Egypt and maybe other Arab states to prepare for the conference", the official Middle East News Agency reported.
Since the militant Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June, Israel has been working to strengthen Abbas' more moderate Fatah faction, whose leadership is now confined to the West Bank.
The regional conference, which the U.S. has announced will take place at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, is one of the considerations preventing a large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip, a senior security source said last week.
"If there are five weeks left until the conference, would it be right to be in the midst of a large-scale operation in Gaza at that time? Is that what will bring the Saudis, or even Abbas?" the source said. The remark came in the context of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's recent statement that each day brings the decision on a large-scale operation closer.
On Monday, Israel is to release 90 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture for the Muslim holiday Ramadan. The government official noted that no new gestures would be offered at Tuesday's meeting.
The official also said that the groups advising Abbas, particularly the Negotiations Support Unit (NSU) headed by Saeb Erekat and composed of Palestinian and other Arab legal experts born or educated in the U.S. or Europe, are hardening their stances ahead of the conference.
Israel sees the NSU as a "diplomatic elite unit" responsible for the opinion handed down by the International Court of Justice in The Hague that the separation fence violates international law.
A senior official said the NSU is presenting Abbas with position papers demanding a schedule for progress following November's regional conference in Washington. The NSU also opposes dividing Jerusalem based on demographic considerations and insists on a division based on the 1967 borders. "This is a non-starter" the official said.
However, Abbas told U.S. media outlets recently that the Palestinian Authority would not agree to the Clinton plan ceding to it 92 percent of the West Bank and would insist on full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines.
The Palestinians have been pressing a reluctant Israel to discuss in depth matters at the core of any future agreement on Palestinian statehood - the shape of final borders and the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Israel is pursuing a vaguer track, and has said hopes the conference will yield only a "declaration of principles."
"Israel's main message to the Arab countries is that it is their duty to support and encourage moderate Palestinians without demands and preconditions," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Haaretz Saturday. "We are telling the Arabs, 'if they [the Palestinians] want to compromise, don't judge them. Don't present demands and don't dictate the outcome of the conflict,'" Livni said. "Our message to the Arab leaders is 'don't be more Palestinian than the Palestinians.'"
Livni also said that instead of waiting for the end of the process, "for every positive step of Israel toward the Palestinians, the Arab countries should respond with a positive step toward Israel."
Livni said it was "too early to tell" whether she had managed to promote a front of moderate Arab countries to assist the process, but that "there is understanding of the common interests between the Arab world and Israel." Livni, who will be addressing the UN General Assembly Monday, also said "Israel should not give up its strategic interests during the process."
Livni tried to dissuade Abbas at an hour-long meeting Friday in New York from insisting on a schedule and an immediate solution to the core issues. She hopes he will agree to deal with consensus issues at this point. "We must be courageous in our decision making, but also smart enough to advance the process in a realistic way, preventing it from failing," Livni said she told Abbas.
In an interview with Agence France-Presse over the weekend, Abbas said that immediately after the summit, the parties would begin talks to reach a detailed and comprehensive agreement, and that the talks would follow a schedule that would not exceed six months.
He said representatives of the Quartet, the Arab League, the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the G8 would attend the conference, which he said would open on November 15. Abbas also said he hoped to reach agreement with Israel on a document ahead of the talks that would include clear principles.
Abbas confident Saudis will attend summit
Abbas expressed confidence in an article published Saturday that Saudi Arabia would attend the November peace conference.
Rice has said key regional players would be invited in an effort to give the meeting more sweep, but no invitations have been sent yet.
But regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations have been reluctant to commit, first wanting proof the meeting will address the conflict's most divisive issues, like final borders, the status of disputed Jerusalem and Palestinian demands to repatriate refugees displaced by the 1948 war that accompanied Israel's creation.
In an interview released Saturday on the Washington Post Web site, Abbas said he met with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister and came away with the impression that a delegation from Riyadh would attend.
"Saudi Arabia had reservations in the beginning because the whole situation was very vague. Now everything is clear," Abbas said. "Yesterday, I met with Prince Saud al-Faisal, and he was satisfied. So I believe they will attend the conference."
In New York on Wednesday, the prince described his talks with U.S. officials about the meeting as encouraging, but would not commit his country's participation. Saudi Arabia does not have ties with Israel, but has proposed a sweeping peace plan endorsed by the Arab League that offers full recognition of Israel in exchange for a total withdrawal from lands it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and the creation of a Palestinian state.
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