JERUSALEM - Palestinian officials angrily denied yesterday a claim by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel that they had agreed to delay talks on the fate of Jerusalem until the last phase of peace negotiations.
The disagreement emerged a day before Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were scheduled to meet for the latest in a series of US-backed talks aimed at reaching a peace deal by the end of the year.
While Israel is boycotting Hamas, a violent group committed to Israel's destruction, it has relaunched peace talks with Abbas, whose government rules the West Bank. However, talks have made little progress since they were resumed at a US-hosted conference last November.
At the conference, Olmert and Abbas pledged to resolve all the "core" issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before President Bush leaves office next January. Those include drawing the final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, resolving the fate of Palestinian refugees, and sorting out conflicting claims to the holy city of Jerusalem.
In a speech Sunday, Olmert said he and Abbas agreed to make Jerusalem the last item on the negotiating agenda because it is "the most difficult" issue. Olmert also hinted the sides may not be able to complete a full agreement in time, saying it was possible the negotiations may only yield a more vague declaration or "principles."
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected those ideas yesterday.
"The most important thing for us now is to find a solution for all these issues, and it will be an agreement," Erekat said.
"Core issues are inseparable," Erekat added. "They are all one package, and there is no such agreement to exclude or delay any of them."
The matter of Jerusalem is key for Olmert, since a coalition partner, the Orthodox Jewish Shas Party, has threatened to withdraw from the government if Jerusalem is brought up in the talks.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day Mideast war and annexed the area. The Palestinians hope to make the city's eastern sector the capital of a future state. East Jerusalem includes the Old City, home of important Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy sites.
Erekat said today's meeting was not expected to deal with the final-status issues. Instead, he expected the talks to focus on day-to-day areas of concern, such as Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Palestinian Information Minister Riad Malki said Abbas would also try to stave off an Israeli invasion of Gaza.
Hamas took over Gaza last June after routing pro-Abbas forces in five days of factional fighting. Since then, Israel has maintained a tight blockade of the area, allowing little more than humanitarian supplies inside.
Hamas militants blew up the wall between Gaza and Egypt last month, and hundreds of thousands of Gazans have had a brief taste of freedom. However, several thousand were stuck in Egypt when the border was resealed.
Israel agreed yesterday to allow a rare shipment of cement into Gaza. Officials said the material would be used to build a desperately needed sewage treatment plant to replace one that collapsed last year and killed five people.