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Olmert keeps up push for Mideast peace

Israel's embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert still believes a peace deal with the Palestinians is possible by year's end despite a looming vote to replace him.

world Updated: Sep 16, 2008 18:22 IST

Israel's embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert still believes a peace deal with the Palestinians is possible by year's end despite a looming vote to replace him, his spokesman said on Tuesday.

"The prime minister believes that the door to an agreement with the Palestinians is not closed and it is possible to achieve this goal by the end of the year," Mark Regev told AFP.

The US-backed peace talks have made little visible progress since they were formally relaunched in November after a seven-year hiatus, with the two sides remaining deeply divided on the thorniest issues of the conflict.

Olmert was to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas later Tuesday for their latest round of talks a day before his centrist Kadima party holds a leadership vote to choose his successor.

The beleaguered prime minister has said he will step down after a new party leader is chosen so he can battle a flurry of corruption allegations that could lead to a criminal indictment.

But Regev said Olmert would continue to "assume all responsibilities" even after the vote. Olmert is expected to serve as interim prime minister until a new government can be formed, which could take weeks or even months.

In the meantime Olmert hopes to draw up a so-called "shelf agreement" with Abbas outlining the results of their talks, one that could be handed over to a new government.

Neither Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been heading the Israeli negotiating team and is the front-runner going into Wednesday's Kadima vote, nor top Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qorei will attend the meeting.

Both have publicly opposed the idea of a shelf agreement.

Olmert has met with Abbas roughly twice a month since US-sponsored peace talks were formally relaunched 10 months ago with the stated goal of resolving the decades-old conflict by the end of 2008.

But the two sides remain deeply divided on the core issues of the conflict, including final borders, the future status of Jerusalem, and the fate of over 4.5 million Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinians have repeatedly said they will not accept a partial or interim agreement that leaves any of the core issues unresolved.

The executive committee of Abbas's Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) said in a statement this week that "the chances of reaching an accord by the end of the year are low" and that Israeli reports of progress are "unfounded."

"We will not accept any agreement that excludes any issue, especially the refugees and Jerusalem," it added.

Qorei has also struck a pessimistic tone.

"I don't think we will have an agreement by the end of the year, but we are working," he said at a recent meeting of senior members of Abbas's Fatah party.

Recent polls of eligible Kadima voters put Livni several points ahead of Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a hawkish former general, but she must win more than 40 percent to avert a run-off vote the following week.

But even if Livni emerges victorious from Wednesday's vote it is unclear whether she will be able to form a government and avert general elections, which polls say would bring the right-wing opposition Likud party to power.

Abbas is scheduled to meet US President George W Bush on September 25 after attending the opening ceremony of the annual UN General Assembly meeting.

Bush, who helped relaunch the talks after a seven-year hiatus, hopes to see the signing of a peace agreement before leaving office in January 2009.