RAMALLAH, West Bank - The chief Palestinian peace negotiator raised the stakes yesterday for a US-sponsored peace conference, saying there will be no talks with Israel unless it agrees to set a deadline for establishing a Palestinian state.
Israeli aircraft, meanwhile, hit a Hamas police station in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, killing four people, hospital and Hamas officials said. The Israeli military said it targeted a Hamas position after the Islamic group pelted southern Israel with mortar shells earlier in the day.
The demand from Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei is the latest problem for the peace conference. Arab nations have been slow to endorse the effort, and Israel is making only general promises instead of specific proposals.
However, it was unclear if the Palestinians could afford to follow through with their ultimatum by boycotting a conference called by President Bush at a time when moderate President Mahmoud Abbas needs Western support and US aid in his struggle against Hamas, which expelled his loyalists and took over Gaza in June. Instead, the threat could be a ploy to wring concessions from Israel.
Israel and the Palestinians differ over the issue of a timetable for setting up a Palestinian state, and talks between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have so far failed to solve the impasse.
Qurei tightened the screws yesterday.
"The Israeli prime minister has stated that he will not accept a timetable, and we say we will not accept negotiations without a timetable," he said at a news conference with the European Union's external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
Qurei indicated the talks with Israel were not going well.
"We haven't gotten closer yet concerning the issues," he said. "We are talking in general about the issues that should be included in the document. [But] we haven't yet touched the core issues."
What the Palestinians want, he said, is "a clear and specific document, without vagueness, that lays the basic foundation for all final status issues. Without that, the conference will be hindered."
An Israeli government spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said negotiations should be held behind closed doors, not through the media.
"We're not at the ultimatum stage," Eisin said. "They agreed to work to go forward, and we are committed to going forward to a joint statement."
No date has so far been set for the peace conference in Annapolis, Md.., because the two sides remain so far apart on the starting point. Israel wants a vague joint statement of objectives, but the Palestinians want a detailed outline that would address core issues.
These include final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem, and a solution for Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.
In the past, deadlines for establishing a Palestinian state have been set and ignored. The latest was the "road map" plan of 2003, a three-stage process ending in creation of a Palestinian state in 2005. The plan stalled at the first stage.
Qurei said a US envoy, Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, is meeting with both sides to try to revive the road map.
In Egypt yesterday, Abbas lashed out against Israel for cutting fuel supplies to Gaza in an effort to pressure militants there to stop their daily rocket fire into southern Israel. Ten mortar rounds exploded in an Israeli village near Gaza yesterday afternoon, the military said. No one was hurt.
On Monday, Israel's attorney general held up the government's plan to cut back electricity supplies to Gaza, demanding more work be done to prevent humanitarian harm.
"We have told the Israelis that they are wrong in adopting these measures, which we fully reject," Abbas said after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. "We do not accept at all this collective punishment."
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband criticized the Israeli measures yesterday. In a statement, he condemned the rocket fire but said Israeli reprisals must "not cause suffering to innocent civilians." Palestinians in Gaza rely on Israel for all of their fuel and more than half of their electricity.
If the energy cutbacks don't halt rocket attacks, then Israel threatens an invasion. Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio yesterday, "Every day that passes brings us closer to a broad operation in Gaza."