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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday that the status quo with the Palestinians cannot continue, as he prepared for his departure Sunday to the U.S.-sponsored peace summit in Annapolis.

As Olmert readies for his trip, Arab League foreign ministers were to meet in Cairo Friday to determine which countries will attend the summit, and at what level.

Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have still not managed to draft a common declaration that is meant to be one of the highlights at Annapolis, signaling the start of intensive negotiations between the two sides for a peace agreement.

No further meetings on the issue have been scheduled for the time remaining before Olmert travels to Washington to attend the conference.

While the two sides have lessened the gaps in their positions in recent days, there still remain divisions over several central issues. Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas have been informed of these divisions so that they can make a decision ahead of the meeting in Annapolis, Maryland on Tuesday.

"We are having a time out," said a source in Jerusalem on Thursday. "The document is ready and awaiting only a few of the leaders' decisions."

At the moment, the decisions to be made by Olmert and Abbas are relate to the timetable of steps; mention of the Arab peace initiative and the role of the Arab world in the process; and how to deal with the "day after" the Annapolis conference.

"We have reduced the gaps and some of the divisions have simply been erased from the declaration in order to allow us to move ahead. We are now at the point of deciding on two or three words on each item," the Jerusalem source said.

Olmert said Thursday that he has "concluded that we cannot maintain the status quo between us and the Palestinians. We have spent too much time dealing with the status quo but it will lead to results that are much worse than those of a failed conference. It will result in Hamas taking over Judea and Samaria, to a weakening or even the disappearance of the moderate Palestinians. Unless a political horizon can be found, the results will be deadly."

Olmert added, "The gap is such that intensive negotiations will be able to narrow them to the point of formulating an agreement."

The negotiations, Olmert said, are expected "to be difficult, but all the difficulties of conducting negotiations are familiar to me. I am not approaching this with naiveté, but as a very sober person, who knows all [the Palestinians'] weaknesses."

On his relations with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and the doubts the latter expressed regarding the potential of the negotiations with the Palestinians, Olmert said, "I do not need to judge Barak about how he reaches his conclusions. The question is whether at the critical juncture, he will be with me or against me, and I maintain that he will be with me."

At Sharm el-Sheikh on Thursday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hosted Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah.

According to an Egyptian government spokesman, the American invitation to the Annapolis summit is based on the principle "of land for peace and the Arab League peace initiative."

Olmert said that U.S. President George Bush will meet separately in Washington on Monday with him and with Abbas before meeting with both together. That evening, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams will meet for dinner at the State Department, where Bush is expected to give an address.

The next day, the negotiators will move to Annapolis for the conference, which will begin with statements by Bush, Abbas and Olmert. The rest of the day will involve working groups.

Related links:

  • Joint document currently being drafted by Israel and the Palestinians
  • Official Annapolis conference Web site
  • List of invitees to peace conference in Annapolis
  • ANALYSIS: The importance of who attends Annapolis from Arab states
  • Barak: Israel mustn't allow itself to be blamed if Annapolis fails
  • Rice: U.S. will try to close Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in the next year