Abbas-Olmert meet in Jericho

The two will hold talks in the West Bank town of Jericho – the first time in years that such a high-level meeting takes place in Palestinian territory – a week after meeting separately with visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Washington is keen to capitalise on a thawing of relations between Mr Abbas and the Israelis in the wake of the Gaza takeover by Islamist Hamas, and to jumpstart peace talks that have been dormant for more than six years.

But whether the talks will result in progress remains unclear, as the two sides cannot agree on the agenda.

While the Palestinians want the discussions to focus on “core issues” – the thorniest problems dogging the decades-long conflict such as Jerusalem and refugees – the Israelis say it is too soon to broach such divisive topics.

’Political issues and final negotiations’

Senior Abbas aide Nabil Amr said that the moderate president “will focus on political issues and final negotiations.

“The most important thing is to prepare successfully and well for the meeting,” he said, referring to the international conference on Middle East peace called for by US President George W. Bush later this year.

“Both sides…must decide on a resolution for the final issues,” he said.

But Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that the Jewish state would not raise such issues.

“Israel has accepted that there will be a viable, contiguous Palestinian state and we believe it’s possible to build a principle on which there is broad consensus.”

During her talks with Mr Abbas last week, Ms Rice told him that Mr Olmert was ready to discuss “fundamental issues that will lead to negotiations soon for the creation of a Palestinian state,” adding that “the word fundamental speaks for itself.”

Israeli officials earlier had told Ms Rice that they wanted a “framework” of final status issues to be agreed upon ahead of the peace conference.

Mr Abbas, however, wants to hold “political negotiations, which means Jerusalem, borders, refugees, water, settlements and security,” chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said.

“The meeting with the international partners will be to implement the agreement,” he said.

Abbas to ask for more prisoners

Mr Amr said that “Abbas will ask Olmert to release more Palestinian prisoners, to facilitate lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, to lift roadblocks and stop settlements.”

He is also likely to again push the Israelis to hand control over West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority to boost Mr Abbas in his standoff with Hamas.

Israel has said that it would not make such a move until Palestinian security forces crack down on militants.

On Sunday, a senior military intelligence official warned the Israeli cabinet that the Palestinians were not yet ready to do that.

“The Fatah security bodies in the West Bank are…unable to deal with security issues,” a senior government official quoted Yossi Baidatz as telling ministers, referring to Mr Abbas’s secular party.

“Fatah relies on the presence of the Israeli army in the fight against terrorism,” he said.