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Core Issues Divide Israeli, Palestinian Negotiators

During the next three days Israeli and Palestinian negotiators who meet in Washington D.C. and Annapolis, Maryland will try to do something that has eluded them for seven years - resurrect the Mideast peace process. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem on whether the conference is likely to decide the course of Middle East diplomacy for years to come.

When they sit down at the conference table at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators and their American hosts will try to forget the past few years of failed diplomacy and move forward.

That will not be easy. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators cannot agree on how to address the core issues that divide them; borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Political Science Professor Ali Jarbawi, of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank city of Ramallah, says reaching an agreement in Annapolis will be difficult.

"If the differences are that huge, so they could not reach a common understanding before going into the conference - a conference of two days, then I am not sure they can come out from that conference with a common vision," said Jarbawi.

Israelis and Palestinians have been holding talks for two months about the agenda for the conference. Palestinians want detailed discussions about the core, or final status issues, and a timetable for resolving them.

Israel says there should be broad discussions at Annapolis and detailed discussions should follow later.

"We want to come out of this conference restarting the talks on those final status issues on the creation of two states, Israel and Palestine living side-by side in peace," said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. " We want to come out of this conference with speedy implementation of stage one of the Roadmap. Both sides have obligations and both sides will start implementing their obligations. That is good for peace."

The Roadmap peace plan devised four years ago by the international community is a multi-phase process that is supposed to result in the creation of a Palestinian state. Its first phase calls for Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and for Palestinians to stop attacking Israelis.

Regev says Israel's third objective at the Annapolis talks will be to set the agenda for a donors conference next month in Paris that is supposed to focus on how to build up Palestinian institutions - especially its security forces, which Israel sees as vital to combating Palestinian militants like Hamas.

Ali Jarbawi of Bir Zeit University says for the conference to be regarded as a success by Palestinians, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will have to return to the West Bank, and show his fellow Palestinians that he has more than just a commitment to re-start talks on final-status or core issues.

He also says Palestinians are counting on the United States to exert pressure on Israel to halt settlement activity in the West Bank and ease checkpoints that severely restrict the movement of Palestinians.

"I think they [Palestinians] would like to see something coming out of this conference, because that will empower the Palestinian Authority and show that the negotiation track can yield results, basically," he said. "We have more than 500 checkpoints in the West Bank; the cantonization of the West Bank, the movement is extremely difficult for ordinary Palestinians. The trade and economic situation is worsening, so they need to see a lifting of checkpoints and the economic situation needs to improve in order to believe in the negotiation process."

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said Israel will stop building settlements in the West Bank, and will dismantle illegal outposts there, but as the head of a weak coalition government, implementing those policies will be difficult.

Regev of the Israeli Foreign Ministry says Mr. Olmert's government is serious about its commitment to the Roadmap peace plan, and will not lose the opportunity being offered at Annapolis.

"All Israeli governments have been coalition governments, and we have coalition governments in the past that have achieved important progress in the peace process. I think Mr. Olmert's has clearly got the numbers in the Knesset to make this work," he said. "I believe that with this determination by the Israeli government together with determination of the Palestinian government we can really move forward. There is a moment of opportunity. We cannot let that moment be wasted."

For his part, Mahmoud Abbas also heads a weak government, and one that only rules in the West Bank. Hamas which fiercely opposes the Annapolis conference runs the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders say they fully expect the Annapolis conference to fail. If that happens, it could be another long wait before diplomacy returns to the Middle East.