November 20, 2007 in Nation/World

Mideast meeting yields little progress on pact

Laurie Copans Associated Press

JERUSALEM – The Israeli and Palestinian leaders made little progress Monday in a last effort to narrow gaps ahead of next week’s U.S.-hosted Mideast peace conference, dimming hopes for a joint declaration of principles in time for the gathering.

Israel’s Cabinet tried to soften the atmosphere by agreeing to free 441 Palestinians prisoners, one of the largest releases in years. But the gesture fell short of Palestinian demands for the release of 2,000 inmates, and Israel angered the Palestinians with its refusal to acknowledge its obligation under a U.S.-backed peace plan to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank.

The 2 1/2 -hour meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was “difficult,” according to an Abbas aide.

A deepening deadlock could dissuade Arab countries from joining the conference in Annapolis, Md. Arab League members, whose attendance is considered crucial, will be briefed by Abbas in Cairo on Friday before deciding whether to participate. Olmert is to meet today with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

Citing U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, McClatchy Newspapers reported Monday that the department will announce today that it will host the conference on Nov. 27, with roughly 40 countries and entities expected to attend.

The Palestinians want the document to contain a brief outline of a solution of each of the “core issues,” such as borders and Jerusalem.

Israel has been cool to the idea and has demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state before peace talks begin. The Palestinians say it’s up to Israel how it wants to define itself and note that the PLO recognized the state of Israel in a 1993 letter that first launched peace talks.

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