Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas headed into a meeting with the Israeli prime minister yesterday warning that a planned international peace conference would be a "waste of time" if it failed to address the core issues of Palestinian statehood -- borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
Abbas pressed Israel to be more specific on how it plans to approach peace talks, saying Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's proposed "declaration of principles" would not suffice.
US President George W. Bush has called for a Mideast peace conference, expected to take place in November, to advance a final Israeli-Palestinian accord.
"If there is a clear framework including final status issues, we will welcome this and go to the conference," Abbas told Voice of Palestine radio.
Pressure is mounting on the two sides to work out differences that have blocked the resumption of peace talks that stalled in 2001 amid intensifying violence.
The US has been prodding Israel and the Palestinians to make progress before the November conference.
Olmert's office said yesterday's meeting was part of an attempt to reach understandings before then, but spokesman David Baker said the big three issues "would not be discussed."
Abbas and Olmert have been meeting regularly for several months, in an attempt to boost Abbas against Islamic Hamas militants who violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. So far, there have been few concrete results, with Israel preferring to focus on general outlines and the Palestinians pressing for detailed talks on the main issues.
The Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday that the two sides had agreed to set up negotiating teams to advance the talks.
The Abbas-Olmert meeting is taking place in the context of two important developments on Monday: The dramatic rescue of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian police and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's assertion that Israel would not be ready to make a large-scale pullback from the West Bank for two-and-a-half years.
Barak said a significant withdrawal would have to wait until Israel had a missile defense system in place in the West Bank, which is just kilometers from major Israeli urban centers.
His comments drew immediate fire from Palestinian officials.
"I find it very hard to comprehend such statements when the prime minister and the Palestinian president are doing their best in order to achieve the end game," meaning a peace agreement, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
But the rescue of the soldier, who the army said had stumbled into a West Bank militant stronghold, was expected to improve the atmosphere at the meeting.
Israelis said the rescue could be a sign Abbas is in firm control of the West Bank, despite losing Gaza to Hamas.
"This operation proves that the Palestinian government and its forces are growing stronger in the field relative to the terrorist organizations," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, Haaretz reported.