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Palestinians Ease Demands Ahead of Mideast Peace Conference

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have held another round of talks ahead of an upcoming peace conference on the Middle East. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, there is cautious optimism about getting the peace process back on track.

The Palestinians have softened their demands on a document on Palestinian statehood that will be presented at an international peace conference in the United States planned for late November. The Palestinians had hoped for a detailed agreement, but with time running short until the conference, it appears that Israel will have its way on a more vague declaration of principles.

Both sides now see the conference in Annapolis, Maryland, as a means to re-launch peace talks that collapsed seven years ago in a wave of violence.

"If the peace process is like a train line, this is a station," said Israeli spokesman Mark Regev. "It's an important station, but it's just as important what we do after the conference as what happens at the conference itself."

Gaps are wide on core issues such as Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements and final borders. But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat believes an agreement can be reached before President Bush finishes his term in just over a year.

"What you need is to produce the comprehensive peace and that is, in my opinion today, doable, it's achievable," said Erekat.

Both Israel and the U.S. hope that the peace conference will strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads a moderate government in the West Bank.

Mr. Abbas suffered a major setback in June, when the Islamic militant group Hamas defeated his Fatah forces and seized control of the Gaza Strip. Hamas refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel, and it says the peace conference is doomed to failure.