'08 Jerusalem answer unlikely

An Israeli government official acknowledged Saturday that the crucial issue of the future status of Jerusalem was unlikely to be resolved in negotiations with Palestinians this year, reflecting the abiding gaps between the sides.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Israel is still committed to the goal set at the American-sponsored peace conference at Annapolis, Md., last fall: Reach an agreement outlining Palestinian statehood and dealing with “all the core issues” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of this year.

But Regev said he did not think Jerusalem's future could be revolved so quickly. “We will outline a methodology for an agreed framework on how to deal with Jerusalem in the future,” he said.

He spoke after the chief Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qureia, said the two sides had agreed recently to start drafting a paper defining their respective positions on the various topics under discussion.

But Qureia, responding to Regev's remarks, made it clear in a telephone interview Saturday that a mere framework would be unacceptable. “If there is no Jerusalem, there will be no agreement,” he said.

While talks with the Israelis were extremely serious, he said, gaps on all the key issues were still “very, very wide.”

The Jerusalem issue is highly emotional and symbolic for both sides and has frustrated negotiators in past talks. The Israelis and the West Bank-based Palestinian leadership now seem torn between wanting to show progress in the negotiations and not wanting to build up undue expectations.

Little has been revealed about the actual content of the talks so far, with both parties maintaining strict secrecy.

Qureia, a veteran negotiator and a former Palestinian prime minister, met Friday night with leading Palestinian journalists to give a sense of where things stood. Besides disclosing the drafting of a position paper, he said Israel had presented the Palestinians with a proposal for a permanent border between Israel and the West Bank involving land swaps. The proposal was not acceptable, he told the journalists, declining to elaborate.

A Palestinian official with knowledge of the talks has said that the Israeli offer was for about 90 percent of the West Bank, with the other 10 percent, including the large Jewish settlement blocs, to be retained by Israel. The Palestinians were not prepared to swap more than 2 percent or 3 percent of the West Bank territory, the official said.

Both sides emphasized the significance and depth of the talks.

“We have achieved much,” Regev said, “but there is still a long way to go.”