Israeli Prime Minister sees no breakthrough at Mideast conference

By Jeffrey Heller, Reuters

BEN-GURION AIRPORT, Israel — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday a U.S.-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood would not yield a “historic breakthrough”.

Two rightist members of Olmert’s coalition have threatened to quit the government if the conference, expected to be held in late November or early December, tackles the most sensitive issues, including control of Jerusalem and its holy sites.

Olmert told reporters ahead of a meeting with his cabinet that the conference “is not meant to be an event on its own or an event for an agreement or a historic breakthrough.”

Olmert said the meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, should instead be viewed as a chance for the international community to support statehood negotiations, expected to begin formally after the conference.

Olmert, who left on Sunday for talks in France and Britain, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have instructed their negotiating teams to draft a joint document for the conference that addresses so called final status issues, including borders and the fate of Jerusalem and millions of Palestinian refugees.

The joint document is meant to serve as the basis for formal statehood negotiations which Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said should be concluded by August.

Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the leading far-right member of Olmert’s coalition government, said he warned the Bush administration that Olmert’s government could collapse if talks went too far. “If, at the Annapolis conference, they deal with the core issues … there will not be a government and there will not be a coalition,” Lieberman told Israel’s Channel 2 television. Cabinet Minister Eli Yishai, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said he warned U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit last week that the conference “could shake up the government.”

The collapse of Olmert’s coalition could trigger an Israeli election and possibly paralyze peace moves for the rest of U.S. President George W. Bush’s term.

Israeli allegations about a suspected Palestinian plot against Olmert’s life cast a further shadow over preparations for the conference.

Israel’s internal security chief told the cabinet on Sunday of a plot to attack Olmert’s convoy en route to a meeting with Abbas in the West Bank town of Jericho.

Olmert expressed “great displeasure” but said the incident would not derail his talks with Abbas.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the suspects were taken into custody in June and freed after three months because Palestinian authorities concluded there was no imminent danger. After Israel protested, the men were detained again, a Palestinian security source said.

“We are trying to do the very best we can to bring law and order to our cities, villages and every area that is under our control. We are doing our best,” Fayyad told reporters in Jerusalem before meeting Israeli lawmakers.

“The lessons learned from this particular episode are being taken, assimilated and studied carefully in order to ensure that the process is better in the future,” Fayyad said.