Israel, Palestine agree to draft peace pact

Secretary of State Rice will assist in positions
JERUSALEM The news coincides with a corruption scandal that threatens to unseat Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Ahmed Qureia, the veteran negotiator heading the Palestinian team, made it clear the decision did not necessarily reflect agreement on major issues, and he criticized Israel for not easing Palestinian movement in the West Bank.

But it would be the first time since the negotiations resumed more than six months ago that any agreements in the peace process would be committed to paper.

"We agreed with the Israelis to begin writing the positions," Qureia told reporters late Friday.

Israeli government officials declined to comment.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's office said she would head to the region next week to try push negotiations forward. The United States is overseeing the talks.

Qureia did not explain why the two sides agreed at this point to begin drafting a text. However, the timing coincides with the corruption scandal that threatens to unseat Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Should Israel find itself going to early elections, polls show Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes major territorial concessions to the Palestinians, becoming Israel's next premier. However, drafting during previous rounds of peace talks has not always meant that those positions were then preserved for future negotiators.

Qureia did not say what issue the two sides would start with. If they agree on an issue, they will then draft a single provision, he said. If not, they will lay out on paper their divergent views, he added.

Israel and the Palestinians resumed peace talks in late November under U.S. prodding. Continued Israeli settlement construction and Israeli security concerns have clouded negotiations, and both sides have expressed doubt about achieving the declared goal of clinching a final accord by the end of the year.

Despite the announcement that negotiators would begin drafting their initial positions, Qureia said Saturday that Israel had not done enough to ease the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, despite a pledge to ease Palestinian movement in the area as a part of peace talks.

"The checkpoints should have been removed after the Annapolis conference," Qureia told reporters, referring to a Mideast peace conference that took place in November. He spoke to reporters while standing at a major checkpoint outside the northern West Bank town of Nablus.

A United Nations report in May said the number of Israeli obstacles in the West Bank increased from 566 in September to 607 in April.

Qureia confirmed that Israeli peace negotiators have offered the Palestinians land in exchange for territory where major West Bank settlements lie, but he termed their offer "unacceptable."

Palestinians would like to incorporate all of the West Bank into a future state, but their moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas, has acknowledged that Israel, with U.S. backing, likely will hold on to blocs where tens of thousands of settlers live. In exchange, Abbas is prepared to relinquish some West Bank land for an equal amount of Israeli land.

U.S. Secretary of State Rice will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah next week to meet senior negotiators to push forward negotiations, her office said. Previous visits by Rice have led to little progress on negotiations.

Qureia said negotiations were "going through a difficult period," because of tense discussions over the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, both hotly contested issues on both sides.

In the Gaza Strip, the Muslim militant group Hamas has now claimed responsibility for a string of attacks in Israel carried out several years ago.

A Hamas web site lists nine attacks that killed 26 Israelis from 2002 until 2005, saying all the attackers came from the West Bank. Other Palestinian groups claimed responsibility for some of those attacks at the time.

Hamas says it kept quiet about its role in the attacks until now for security reasons and it was not immediately clear whether Hamas really did commit them.

That period was the height of Palestinian and Israeli fighting in which bus bombings, shootings and other attacks frequently took place.


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