Israeli, Palestinian Leaders Make Progress Toward Peace Talks

Palestinian leaders expect an upcoming Mideast conference to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and set a six-month deadline for completing a deal, the Palestinian information minister said Thursday.

The minister, Riad Malki, spoke a day after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, their sixth meeting since the spring.

The two leaders asked aides to draft a joint statement of principles that would guide future negotiations. The drafting teams will get to work next week.

Later next week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will return to the region and meet with the two sides to assess progress, said Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia. Based on the outcome, a date would be set for the U.S. conference.

The conference is expected to take place sometime in late November or early December, but it remains unclear who will attend. Several Arab leaders have said they'd only participate if the conference deals with substance.

The joint declaration will not be as detailed as the Palestinians had hoped, but Palestinian officials said it is to address all the tough issues — borders, Jewish settlements, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Malki said the conference is expected to endorse the document, and pave the way for a resumption of peace talks, which broke down in January 2001.

He said the Palestinians want the conference to set a six-month deadline for completing a peace deal. "After six months of negotiations, all the participants would return to a peace conference, to endorse our agreement with Israel," he said of the Palestinian proposal.

David Baker, an Israeli government official, said Israel is serious about negotiating a deal, but that "this is not merely a product of how much time elapses."

A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the conference, said the U.S. is "not looking at timelines."

Abbas has said he would submit a future agreement with Israel to a referendum, and Malki said the Palestinian president remains committed to the plan. The referendum would be held in the Palestinian territories and among Palestinian exiles, Malki said.

A "yes" vote could help silence Palestinian hard-liners, particularly the Islamic militant Hamas which seized control of Gaza by force in June.

In Gaza, meanwhile, tensions were rising between Hamas and activists of Abbas' Fatah movement.

Early Thursday, a blast went off near a group of Hamas policemen patrolling in Gaza City, wounding three, one critically, Hamas officials said. Hamas blamed Fatah for the attack, and said it has rounded up several suspects.

Earlier this week, Hamas blamed Fatah for what it said was a failed attack on a Hamas security compound. In the incident, three Fatah activists and a bystander were killed when a blast went off in a car, possibly because of mishandled explosives. A day later, Hamas raided a four-story Fatah office building.