Sunday, March 11, 2007

Secret talks under way with Israel: Palestinian sources

Contributed by Lucia

"RAMALLAH, West Bank (AFP) - Israeli and Palestinian officials have been holding talks through a "secret channel" with the aim of jumpstarting the stalled peace process, Palestinian sources told AFP on Sunday.

The officials involved have been Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and Salam Fayyad, a former Palestinian finance minister, they said.

The trio have met twice in recent weeks, the sources said on condition of anonymity.

"They discussed issues related to the final status agreement and the Arab initiative," one source said.

He was referring to a Saudi peace plan adopted by the Arab League in 2002 and the thorniest issues of the Middle East conflict which both sides have always accepted will be left to a final peace agreement.

A senior aide to Livni rejected the report.

"There has been no meeting between Minister Livni and Yasser Abed Rabbo recently, certainly not on issues of final status... The last time they met was several months ago," the aide said.

The Palestinian sources made their remarks as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas met in Jerusalem, with their third encounter in as many months failing to produce any major breakthroughs.

Abbas has on several occasions said that he favoured a "parallel channel" in talks with Israel, like the secret talks that resulted in the 1993 Oslo accords.

The secret discussions have touched on the most sensitive issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians, including the final borders of the Palestinians' promised state and the fate of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, the sources said.

The Arab peace plan of 2002 calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories, including east Jerusalem, in return for a full normalization of relations with the Arab world.

Livni said earlier this month that the Jewish state could not accept the initiative as it stands.

Earlier on Sunday, Olmert said Israel was "ready to take seriously" the Arab initiative.

"We sincerely hope that at the summit of the Arab leaders in Riyadh, the positive element in the Saudi initiative will be emphasised and would maybe allow an opportunity to strengthen the chances for negotiations with the Palestinians on its basis," Olmert said.

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