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Rice move to bind incoming Israeli PM?

Condoleezza Rice

JERUSALEM – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been collecting notes and documents from Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams to ensure the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama will not need to start negotiations here from scratch, WND has learned.

Rice’s State Department is working to assemble the notes and to outline issues on which both sides are close to an agreement, according to informed Israeli and Palestinian sources.

With new general Israeli elections scheduled for February, Rice’s move could limit the incoming Israeli prime minister, since the Palestinian Authority can point to notes documenting points of agreement by the current prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

While Olmert’s non-finalized decisions during negotiations are not binding for the next prime minister, documents noting agreements during previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been used – at times as starting points – in subsequent talks.

According to both Israeli and PA sources, American officials took detailed notes of talks at U.S.-brokered negotiations at Camp David in 2000 and then used points of agreement on key issues, such as borders, during the current round of intense Israeli-Palestinian talks, which continue this week.

In Washington Tuesday, Olmert hinted an agreement on some core issues may be forthcoming before he leaves office in February. Olmert resigned amid a corruption scandal that may eventually see him indicted.

Five days after WND broke the story exposing secret Israeli-Palestinian talks aimed at reaching an agreement on core issues, Olmert announced Tuesday that “in principle there is nothing to prevent us from reaching an agreement on the core issues in the near future.”

“We’re in a situation where it’s possible to do so, and I hope we do. It would be good for the state of Israel,” said Olmert speaking to Israeli reporters after a meeting with President Bush.

Speaking of “a painful sacrifice of parts of the land of Israel and the history of the Jewish people,” Olmert told reporters now was the “time for decisions.”

“I am ready to make that decision, and I hope the other side will make it as well,” he said. “You don’t need months to make a decision.”

Last week, informed Israeli and Palestinian sources told WND that despite media reports painting a dismal picture of negotiation prospects, Israel and the PA were still quietly working to conclude a major agreement before President Bush leaves office.

The agreement would seek an eventual major West Bank withdrawal and grant the PA permission to open official institutions in Jerusalem. But it would postpone talks on the future status of the capital city until new Israeli and U.S. governments are installed next year.

A top source said the PA requested that as part of the understandings, the U.S. would threaten sanctions for any new Jewish construction in the West Bank.

Israel recaptured the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War. The territory, in which about 200,000 Jews live, is tied to Judaism throughout the Torah and is often referred to as the biblical heartland of Israel.

The understandings both sides are trying to reach before January are part of an original plan initiated at last November’s U.S.-sponsored Annapolis summit, which sought to create a Palestinian state, at least on paper, by January. The summit launched talks aimed at concluding a final status agreement on all core issues: borders, the status of Jerusalem and the future of so-called Palestinian refugees.

But a final agreement has been hampered by several recent events here, most notably Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to resign amid corruption charges, leading to general elections scheduled for February that will see a new prime minister elected.

The candidate for office from Olmert’s Kadima party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is said to oppose reaching a deal on Jerusalem or refugees ahead of elections, fearing it will harm her prospects among center-right voters. Livni is Olmert’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians.

A Palestinian source told WND the U.S. is said to favor Israel withdrawing from nearly the entire West Bank. Also being heavily negotiated is an agreement that would allow the PA to officially open institutions in Jerusalem.

WND previously reported the PA already has been quietly operating in Jerusalem, apparently with tacit approval from the Israeli government. But the expected agreement to be concluded before January would give the PA official operational status in the city, likely leading to the opening of scores of Palestinian institutions there.

According to Israeli law, the PA cannot officially hold court in Jerusalem. The PA previously maintained a de facto headquarters in Jerusalem, called Orient House, but the building was closed down by Israel in 2001 following a series of suicide bombings in Jerusalem. Israel said it had information indicating the House was used to plan and fund terrorism.

Thousands of documents and copies of bank certificates and checks captured by Israel from Orient House – including many documents obtained by WND – showed the offices were used to finance terrorism, including direct payments to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror group.

In parallel with an understanding on the West Bank and Jerusalem institutions, the PA is pushing for a massive prisoner release to be pledged before January. A senior Palestinian negotiator told WND the PA requested that all Palestinian prisoners – meaning even convicted terrorists responsible for murdering Israelis as well as members of the rival Hamas terror group – be freed as part of the deal.

While the negotiator conceded such a massive release is unlikely, he said the PA’s hope is that Israel will grant a large release, possibly including the freedom of convicted murderer Marwan Barghouti.

Barghouti is a founder of Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror group, the most active Palestinian terror organization. He has boasted of planning the intifada, or Palestinian terror war, launched in September 2000, after then-PA President Yasser Arafat turned down an Israeli offer of a Palestinian state and instead attempted to “liberate” Palestine by force. Barghouti is serving five life sentences for his direct role in murdering Israelis.

Other understandings that Israel and the PA are attempting to reach before January surround water and natural resources.

To interview Aaron Klein, contact M. Sliwa Public Relations by e-mail, or call 973-272-2861 or 212-202-4453.