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Palestinian leader Abbas proposes "backdoor" peace talks with Israel

Palestinian leader Abbas proposes "backdoor" peace talks with Israel

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas proposed Wednesday that he start talking with Israel away from the media spotlight about some of the most difficult problems of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
"It is the right time to talk about this issue seriously," Abbas told reporters after he met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday.
Recent weeks have seen a growing momentum toward reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Abbas on Saturday and Olmert is expected to meet Mubarak next week at an Egyptian Red Sea resort. The bipartisan panel on Iraq that reported to President George W. Bush earlier this month advised that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would contribute to reducing the conflict in Iraq.
Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, has hosted several rounds of talks among rival Palestinian factions over the years. It has been working to broker a deal between the Jewish state and Hamas for the release of an Israeli soldier captured in June by militants affiliated to the group.
Olmert said last week that he would consider releasing some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel before Cpl. Gilad Shalit is freed, softening his opposition to such a move.
Abbas did not spell out why he was proposing that the negotiations with Israel be "backdoor." But as one of the architects of the Oslo peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993, he is known to champion quiet, informal diplomacy.
"We have the idea of a backdoor channel between us and the Israelis, with the participation of one or all members of the Quartet to discuss all the issues of the final status," Abbas said, referring to the four Western powers _ the United States, Russia, European Union and the United Nations _ that oversee the peace process.
Abbas said he had proposed backdoor negotiations to Prime Minister Olmert at their weekend meeting, and that the Israeli leader had no immediate objection and promised to consider the suggestion.
Abbas said he planned to discuss the idea with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she comes to the Middle East next month.
"This is not secret negotiations, therefore, they would help more than they would harm," Abbas said.
Abbas made clear he wanted the talks to focus on the issues that have been the hardest to resolve in previous negotiations _ the future of Palestinian refugees, the sovereignty of Jerusalem _ which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, and the borders of the future Palestinian state.
It is not certain that Olmert would agree to tackle the thorniest issues rather than proceed by the more cautious route of step-by-step negotiations and interim agreements. The premier is under pressure from hard-line Israelis opposed to withdrawing from the West Bank.
It is also unclear what the reaction of the Hamas-led Palestinian government would be to the results of any backdoor talks with Israel.
Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, is believed to favor a limited truce with the Jewish state in exchange for its complete withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was quoted Wednesday as saying she believed in negotiations with the Palestinians, even when fighting is under way.
"Even during (former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon's term of office, I claimed that we shouldn't say that we won't talk under fire," Livni told Israeli paper Haaretz in an interview.
Olmert is expected to meet Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik on Jan. 4, Olmert's office said Wednesday. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit met Israeli officials in Jerusalem on Wednesday to prepare for the summit.
Egypt has played a major role in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, and has been trying to negotiate the release of an Israeli soldier captured by militants linked to Hamas in June.
A spokesman for President Mubarak, Suleiman Awad, told reporters Wednesday that the Egyptian leader had written to President Bush urging him to take advantage of the current climate to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
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