Israel, PA to Set Up Working Groups to Draft Agreement

Israel and the Palestinian Authority will establish working groups to begin drafting an agreement of principles, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas announced yesterday following their meeting in Jerusalem.

The goal is to have the document ready to present at a U.S.-sponsored international peace conference that will take place in Washington later this fall.

The Prime Minister's Bureau issued a statement yesterday saying that the working groups will focus on furthering the "two-state vision."

Chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat and Abbas' chief of staff, Rafik al-Husseini, will head the Palestinian teams. Israel's teams will be headed by senior Olmert aides Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turjeman, with assistance from representatives of the Foreign and Defense Ministries.

Erekat and Husseini told reporters yesterday that Abbas and Olmert agreed to hold another meeting on September 25.

In addition, Israel will release additional Palestinian prisoners during the first week of Ramadan, which begins on Thursday, as a good-will gesture. Olmert also agreed to Abbas' request that Israel transfer PA packages of food and cigarettes to Palestinian prisoners during the holiday.

Abbas has long sought a release of Palestinian prisoners to shore up his public standing. Israel holds about 11,000 Palestinian prisoners, and their fate is an emotional issue in Palestinian society.

However, Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, Olmert's coalition partners on the right, threatened to vote against the proposed release during Sunday's cabinet meeting.

Erekat said the two leaders also agreed to resolve the problem of the militants from Abbas' Fatah party who were exiled following Israel's siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. They will probably be put into the same amnesty program Israel offered to other Fatah-affiliated militants recently.

The first part of yesterday's meeting concentrated on day-to-day issues. For the first time since the Abbas-Olmert meetings began earlier this summer, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also participated.

Fayyad presented the security plan the PA has prepared with the assistance of the American security coordinator, General Keith Dayton. According to the plan, five battalions of troops loyal to Abbas will be deployed in the West Bank.

The Palestinian prime minister did not ask that West Bank cities be transferred to Palestinian security control immediately, but said that this should follow progress in implementing the security program.

Abbas reiterated the need to increase freedom of movement for the Palestinian population in the West Bank, and Olmert promised that after the Jewish holidays, an improvement will be felt. He said that the defense establishment has completed a plan for alleviating restrictions on the freedom of movement, which it would present to him by next week.

Erekat said that Abbas asked Israel to remove 16 major West Bank checkpoints, but Olmert made no firm commitment on this issue.

Abbas and Olmert also agreed to set up several professional teams to deal with various secondary issues that must be settled as part of a final-status agreement, such as water, the environment, energy, economics and infrastructure.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected in the region next week for talks to prepare for the Washington peace conference. The Quartet of Mideast mediators - the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations - will also convene in Washington later his month and meet with Arab League representatives, who have been promoting an Arab plan for a comprehensive peace with Israel.

Yesterday's Olmert-Abbas meeting took place as the PA chairman received some good news: A poll showed that nearly three quarters of Palestinians oppose Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip. The survey also said that if presidential elections were held today, Abbas would win with 59 percent of the vote, compared with 36 percent for Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.