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Israeli, Palestinian Leaders Meet in Jerusalem


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met late Tuesday in Jerusalem. VOA's Jim Teeple reports both sides say they will attempt to accelerate peace talks amid growing doubts that a peace agreement between the two sides can be achieved this year.

Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas have been holding monthly meetings since December and their negotiating teams have been meeting weekly since then, but both sides say there has been little or no progress.

Now both leaders say they will step up their efforts - meeting again in two weeks. Mr. Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev says both leaders are committed to a peace agreement this year, something they agreed to last year at the Annapolis Mideast peace meeting.

"There are a lot of issues on the table we want to have progress, and we remain committed to a historic reconciliation this year - a historic agreement. Now a lot of work has to be done; the two leaders will meet again in two weeks, and in the meantime the negotiating teams will meet in an ongoing basis."

Earlier Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad criticized the pace of the negotiations telling American Jewish leaders that based on how the negotiations have been progressing so far, he did not believe a peace agreement could be reached this year.

Relations between the two sides have deteriorated since last year's Annapolis peace conference, with Israeli officials accusing Palestinians of not doing enough to stop terrorist attacks against Israel, and Palestinian officials accusing Israeli officials of not halting settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

A dispute over whether the two sides had agreed to postpone the issue of discussing the status of Jerusalem nearly derailed Tuesday's meeting.

Speaking before the talks got under way, Saeb Erekat, a key Palestinian negotiator said Palestinians would not consider putting off such an important issue.

"How can you speak about delaying discussing any subject of things that you have not begun discussing," he said. "Secondly, how can you reach an agreement without discussing the whole package. We have the basic principle agreed between us that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."

Erekat says that Mr. Abbas raised the issue of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and called on Israel to release Palestinian prisoners during their talks.

Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip condemned Tuesday's meeting saying Mr. Abbas has no authority to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians. A 10-year-old Palestinian boy was killed in Gaza on Tuesday when he was caught in crossfire between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.

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