Text size

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will likely meet Tuesday, as part of their preparations for a U.S.-hosted Mideast peace conference later this fall, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Saturday.

Erekat added that the negotiating teams appointed to draft a joint statement of principles ahead of the conference might at some point participate in the talks.

Olmert and Abbas have met five times in recent months, in an attempt to build trust and find a way to restart peace talks that broke down in 2001.

In the previous five sessions, Abbas and Olmert met privately, and later briefed their aides, who then began jotting down notes.

David Baker, a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office, said a firm date for the meeting has not yet been set.

Abbas says 'olive branch' won't fall from his handsAbbas said Friday his government was completely committed to a U.S.-proposed Mideast peace conference and vowed that the olive branch of peace would not fall from his hands.

His impassioned speech to the UN General Assembly Friday recalled the famous address to the same forum in 1974 by his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who appeared wearing a holster and carrying a sprig. Arafat told the assembled leaders that he carried both the olive branch and the freedom fighter's gun, and implored the world not to let that branch fall.

Abbas, who wore a business suit and no holster, pledged that "the olive branch of peace that never withers or dies, will not fall from my hands."

"Today, there is not the slightest obstacle to promoting the holding of (the upcoming) peace meeting, in particular because our brother Arab countries have demonstrated through the Arab Peace Initiative their true readiness to bring about a just, lasting and comprehensive peace," Abbas said, referring to the Arab proposal that offers peace in exchange for land.

"This is why we are very committed to the substance of that meeting as proposed...We would hope all parties would sit down to negotiation."

He reiterated his government's position that the key to solving the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians lay in directly addressing the divisive final status issues including Palestinian statehood, the status of Jerusalem and a right of return for refugees.

The November meeting, proposed by U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, is aimed at bringing together all parties involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, including key regional players like Syria and Saudi Arabia, as well as Jordan and Egypt which have already signed peace agreements with Israel.

But the Arab nations have so far been reluctant to commit, fearing that a failure to address fundamental final status issues will result in a gathering high on show, but low on substance. An agenda has yet to be set and the invitations have not been sent.

Hamas on Saturday slammed the Palestinian chairman's speech before the UN General Assembly, calling it "factional and provoking."

"It incites against Hamas and some neighboring countries," Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha told reporters in Gaza.

Syria asks whether Golan will be on conference agendaSyrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani said the government wanted answers to a number of questions, including details on the agenda of the meeting, and specifically whether the Syria-Israel dispute over the Golan Heights would be discussed.

Abbas' comments echoed recent expressions of optimism by other Arab leaders who, when the meeting was first proposed, were largely skeptical.

Hamas has opposed the meeting from the outset and concerns remain that their continued rejection, along with their refusal to recognize Israel or to rule out violence against it, could scuttle whatever gains are accrued.

Abbas, however, said he would take whatever comes out of the conference to the Palestinian people in a referendum so that they could make their own decision.

"I came to express to you the pain and suffering of every Palestinian man and woman; those who were martyred or injured; all those who await the freedom of a brother or father or sister or mother suffering in prison .... and the millions of Palestinians living as refugees on their own land," he said.

Abbas said: "The message of peace handed down from the prophets and messengers is (one) that will continue to flourish and grow like a tree, and the voice of peace in our land will be louder than any other voice."

The upbeat tone in the face of a conflict that has ensnared the world leader after world leader for six decades was echoed, cautiously, by the Arab League's secretary-general earlier in the day.

Amr Moussa said his discussions over the past few days, with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others, were reassuring and that there was a strong desire to have all parties participate in the meeting.

"We, on the Arab side, have shown through our initiative that we are ready for peace with Israel," he said. "We are ready to turn the page."

But Moussa also stressed that the Arabs are not prepared to negotiate continuously if the commitment to the process is not mutual.

"At the very least Israel should halt the expansion of settlements," he said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit echoed this cautious but positive approach in his speech to the assembly. He said the conference "may, if well prepared, provide an important opportunity to achieve long-awaited progress."

Aboul Gheit's Jordanian counterpart, Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib, said it may be the last chance to achieve progress and, as a result, the U.S. and others must ensure it tackles the final status issues.

Livni to Abbas: Israelis, Palestinians must make brave decisionsAlso on Friday, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Abbas that the Palestinians and Israelis must make brave decisions in order to achieve peace between the two nations.

"We must be brave in our decisions, but smart enough to advance the political process in a realistic and educated way, and thus avoid failure," Livni told Abbas during their meeting in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Israeli political sources described the meeting as positive and said that efforts were made on both sides to promote the U.S.-backed regional peace conference scheduled for November. Both sides showed a willingness to contribute to the success of the summit in a way that would reflect their respective goals, the sources added.

The two officials also focused on the situation in the Gaza Strip, where the militant group Hamas had seized control from the hands of Abbas' Fatah movement in June.

U.S. officials have indicated the conference would group Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will host the conference, said no invitations have been issued so far.

Abbas said that talks resulting from the planned November summit could bring a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians within eight months. In an interview with the French news agency AFP, Abbas denied reports that he was not planning to attend the summit.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported Friday that the U.S. had chosen Annapolis, Maryland as the expected site of the peace conference this fall.

The small city, about 50 kilometers northeast of Washington D.C., was selected for proximity to the capital and the presence of the U.S. Naval Academy, where the November conference would be based, U.S. and other officials said Friday.

The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the conference have not been announced. The United States has been vague about the agenda, timing and guest list for the meeting, but Rice has said it will deal with the hardest issues in the 60-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Annapolis was also attractive because, unlike other sites near Washington, it has not been the site of any previous Mideast peace sessions.

U.S. officials want to avoid both high expectations and bad memories by not returning to the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, site of both a historic U.S.-brokered peace breakthrough and a failure.

Bush announced in July that the United States would host an international gathering dedicated to jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian talks. The Bush administration wants Arab powerbrokers, notably Saudi Arabia, to attend and lend backbone to the efforts to set up an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The militant Palestinian Hamas group has called on Saudi Arabia and other nations not to attend, and warned Arab countries against offering concessions to Israel.