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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.

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.

Tomorrow, 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. He 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.

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.

"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 yesterday. "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 U.N. General Assembly tomorrow, 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 right 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 U.N. 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 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.