JERUSALEM – After a series of informal talks, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders took a first small step Wednesday toward a long elusive peace deal, asking aides to write down the principles that will guide future negotiations.
The joint declaration won't be as detailed as the Palestinians had hoped, but Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said it is expected to address all the tough issues, such as borders, Jewish settlements, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The Israeli and Palestinian drafting teams will meet for the first time early next week.
The joint statement will be the centerpiece of U.S.-hosted Mideast conference in November, which is to relaunch peace talks that collapsed in January 2001.
On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his Jerusalem residence, their sixth meeting since the spring. No refreshments were served because Abbas is observing the dawn-to-dusk fast of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Olmert, in turn, gave the Palestinian leader a brief tour of his sukka, a traditional hut erected during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
The two leaders spent an hour alone, and then brought in the senior aides who will draft the joint document. Olmert's aides said the atmosphere was relaxed.
Initially, the Palestinians had sought a detailed framework agreement that would spell out solutions for the main disputes and include timetables for implementation. However, Israel insisted on a more general statement of intent.
In their meetings, Abbas and Olmert have already talked in broad strokes about some of the difficult issues. For example, both raised the idea of a possible land swap, in which Israel would keep some West Bank land to incorporate Jewish settlements, and would compensate the Palestinians with the same amount of Israeli territory.
Olmert's aides have said the two talked about the principle, not about percentages.
It's widely expected that the two sides would pick up where they left off in January 2001, the last round of peace talks held at the Egyptian resort of Taba. At the time, the Palestinian uprising and a harsh Israeli crackdown were already in full swing, but negotiators had made headway, especially on a border deal based on land swaps.
In Gaza, meanwhile, tensions were rising between the ruling Hamas movement and Abbas' Fatah Party.
Hamas police took over a four-story Fatah office building and asked activists to leave without their belongings, said Fatah spokesman Hazem Abu Shanab.
Since taking control of Gaza by force, Hamas has closed down nearly all Fatah institutions. Wednesday's raid came a day after Hamas accused Fatah activists of trying to attack a Hamas security compound in Gaza City. Four people, including three Fatah activists, were killed when some explosives went off prematurely, Hamas said.
According to a poll published Wednesday, 58 percent of Gazans are afraid to express their political views following the takeover.
The poll was conducted by Near East Consulting, a West Bank-based research firm. The poll is based on telephone interviews with 470 Gazans in late September. A margin of error was not given.
Sixty percent said Hamas' paramilitary police, known as the Executive Force, has done a poor job respecting individual rights. Fifty-two percent said the West Bank-based government appointed by Abbas after the Hamas takeover is the legitimate authority, while 26 percent favored the Hamas government led by Ismail Haniyeh.
Nearly three-quarters said they support Abbas' call for new elections — a position opposed by Hamas. It said 42 percent would vote for Fatah, with just 15 percent support for Hamas.
Also Wednesday, four Palestinians were killed, including one by Israeli army fire and another by a grenade that went off prematurely. A Hamas activist was killed digging a tunnel near the Israeli border, and another died of wounds in an explosion blamed on Israel. The Israeli army denied involvement.