Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are scheduled to meet today in Jerusalem, in what will most likely be their final meeting before the Kadima primary on September 17.
Olmert will seek to convince the Palestinian leader to accept an agreement of principles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that will represent a framework for a two-state solution.
As far as Olmert is concerned, the talks with Abbas have entered the "final straight" and there are about two weeks left to reach an agreement before the prime minister steps down.
However, veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said yesterday that he does not expect the two sides to conclude a joint document during September.
Erekat made the comments yesterday following various reports that the Bush administration would like to present a joint document of understandings between Israel and the PA before the UN General Assembly in September .
Central in Olmert's proposal to the Palestinians is that the talks on sovereignty and control over the holy sites in Jerusalem be held under an international umbrella, where governments and other interested party will be able to contribute their views. The negotiations will be held directly between Israel and the Palestinians, and international parties will not be able to impose their views on a solution. The role of the international parties would be to bolster the agreement that the two sides will agree upon in direct negotiations.
According to Olmert's proposal, a five-year timetable will be set out for completing a settlement on Jerusalem.
Olmert's proposal, which was discussed in recent talks with Abbas, is meant to bridge his promise to coalition partner Shas that Jerusalem will not be raised during the current round of talks, and the Palestinian demands that any agreement between the two sides would include mention of "all the core issues" - borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem.
The solution offered by the prime minister is to agree to a mechanism for discussing the issue of Jerusalem, and delay the substantive talks on the subject to the future.
This is the first time that Israel has proposed involving international parties on the Jerusalem issue, even if their role will be limited to a consultative one. The idea was raised during the Camp David talks of 2000, when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat argued that he does not have a mandate to decide the future of the holy sites - which are important to the entire Muslim world - and rejected the offer of then-prime minister Ehud Barak to divide Jerusalem.
Olmert's proposal is meant to gain broad backing for the Palestinian leadership's decisions, and prevent any collapse of the agreement because of opposition from other countries and religious groups.
Olmert is probably planning to include in the negotiations members of the international Quartet (the U.N., U.S., EU and Russia), as well as Jordan, Egypt, the Vatican and possibly the king of Morocco. From Israel's point of view, broadening the international, inter-faith element only increases the chances of finding an acceptable agreement, even though there is risk in involving parties who are opposed to Israel's sovereign control over the holy sites in Jerusalem.
The prime minister presented his detailed proposal to the Palestinians to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit to Jerusalem last Tuesday. Rice told Olmert that "it is a very generous plan" for the Palestinians and discussed it with Abbas, with whom she met several hours after her talks with Olmert. Olmert told Rice that he presented his plan to Abbas a month ago, but the PA president had still not given him a final answer.
In the past few weeks, Olmert sent a number of emissaries to Abbas and his aides, in an attempt to convince them to adopt the plan. Among the emissaries were Vice Premier Haim Ramon, MK Yossi Beilin and U.S. businessman Daniel Abraham, a personal friend of the prime minister.
Abbas and his closest aides presented Olmert's emissaries with a series of reservations, and argued that they were being offered a "partial agreement" of the kind that will weaken Abbas. They also said that "the timing is not good for an agreement at this time."
In response, Olmert's emissaries said that an agreement will allow Abbas to present an achievement ahead of the PA presidential elections scheduled to take place in January 2009.
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