Palestinians and Israelis Struggle to Reach Summit Deal

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Israeli and moderate Palestinian leaders were struggling last night to agree a joint declaration intended to be the centrepiece of the international United States-convened Middle East summit less than a week away.

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators reconvened in the wake of two and half hours of direct talks between the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to overcome differences still clouding the planned summit, intended to kick-start the first resumption of a peace process in seven years.

Miri Eisin, Mr Olmert's spokesperson, said there had been "progress" at the talks but officials on both sides acknowledged the possibility that the summit scheduled for next week in Annapolis, Maryland, could go ahead without a joint declaration designed to define common ground between the two sides. One possibility, if a joint declaration cannot be agreed, is said to be two separate declarations by Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas - or even for the parameters of future negotiations to be left to the speech President George Bush makes to the conference.

The fresh efforts came as the Israeli cabinet approved the release of 441 prisoners - mainly in Mr Abbas's Fatah movement - and pledged not to build additional Jewish settlements in the West Bank as well as repeating earlier promises to remove illegal settlement outposts.

The prisoner releases fall short of the 2,000 demanded by the Palestinian negotiators who swiftly also complained that the pledge fell well short of the stipulation in the internationally agreed road map for peace for a total freeze, including in "natural growth" of existing settlements. "Either it's a 100 per cent settlement freeze or no settlement freeze" said the lead negotiator, Saeb Erekat. "There is nothing in the middle."

Earlier, the latest demand by the Israeli government of the Palestinians - that they explicitly recognise Israel as a "Jewish state" - drew unexpected fire from Dov Weissglass, the man who was the closest and most powerful lieutenant to the former prime minister Ariel Sharon, until Mr Sharon's debilitating stroke nearly two years ago. …