Top Palestinian Negotiator Toured West Bank With Senior Israeli Officials

The head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), toured in recent weeks with senior Israeli officials the area near Ariel and other settlements whose future is disputed.

Political sources in Jerusalem said that the tour of these areas was meant to highlight to the Palestinian negotiators the complexity of the problem in areas that pose the greatest difficulties in talks on matters of borders and territory.

The same sources said that Qureia did not enter the settlements, and only viewed them from a distance. Qureia's counterpart in the talks, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, did not participate in the tour.

On the Israeli side there was disagreement on the utility of inviting Palestinian negotiators to the settlements, fearing that they would be abused.

In negotiations with Israel on the borders, the Palestinians have demanded that Ariel be evacuated and opposed the existence of settlement blocks near Ma'aleh Adumim.

While Israeli sought to highlight the difficulty of evacuating Ariel, the Palestinians sought to make clear the obstacle that settlements pose to Palestinian territorial contiguity.

The two sides remain far apart on security issues, and the Palestinians oppose any Israeli military presence in the territory of a future Palestinian state. For its part, Israel would like to supervise border crossings, maintain a limited deployment in the Jordan Valley, continue overflights of the Palestinian territory, maintain early warning stations on mountain ridges and hold emergency response units in Palestinian areas.

The Palestinians have rejected all the Israeli requirements, and while they agreed on Palestine being demilitarized, there is disagreement on the nature of the arms the Palestinians will be banned from holding.

The Palestinians have proposed the deployment of a multinational force in their territory, commanded by an American, but Israel believes that the U.S. and other western countries will not agree to send troops to the West Bank.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would like to gain American support for Israel's security demands, and believes that this way he will be able to overcome Palestinian steadfastness on this issue.

On a number of occasions in recent months, Olmert sent aides to Washington who presented the security concept formulated by a team headed by Major General Ido Nehushtan. The U.S. administration has still not responded to the Israeli proposal.

It is unclear whether Olmert is seeking to receive written guarantees on security matters from President George Bush, as his predecessor received from Bush on matters of borders and the refugee issue.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives today for a 24-hour visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. She will hold meetings with the Israeli leadership, even though two of her interlocutors - Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - do not place negotiations with the Palestinians at the top of their agenda as they enter a period of elections and jockeying for political power.

In the case of Olmert, he lacks the legitimacy to carry out any substantive diplomatic move.

Most reflective of this atmosphere is the fact that nearly no preparatory meetings were held before Rice's arrival. Contrary to previous visits by the U.S. Secretary of State, Olmert held no briefings with Barak and Livni, although it is possible that he will hold a short meeting today.