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Report: Israel to return more of West Bank

Israel has offered to give up more of the West Bank than it had in a previous proposal but still not enough to meet Palestinian demands, Palestinian officials close to peace talks said Sunday.
Palestinian demonstrators argue with an Israeli soldier during a protest by local and international peace activists against Israel's controversial separation barrier at the spot where bulldozers were clearing land for a section of the wall in the village of Nilin, near the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 25.Abbas Momani / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel has offered to give up more of the West Bank than it had in a previous proposal but still not enough to meet Palestinian demands, Palestinian officials close to peace talks said Sunday.

Also Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was quoted as telling backers that the negotiations have achieved no progress since they were restarted last November with a pledge to President Bush to try for a full peace treaty by the end of the year.

The Palestinian officials said Israel presented its new proposed West Bank map three days earlier in a negotiating session. The proposal would leave about 8.5 percent of the territory in Israeli hands. The last map Israel offered had 12 percent of the West Bank remaining in Israel.

Israel wants to keep its main settlement blocs on the West Bank, offering land inside Israel to Palestinians in exchange. The land would be between Hebron in the southern West Bank and Gaza — at least part of a route through Israel to link the two territories.

Land dispute ongoing
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are being conducted behind closed doors, said Palestinians were ready to trade only 1.8 percent of the West Bank for Israeli land.

Israeli officials refused to comment.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that progress has been made in several areas, but he refused to give details out of concern for harming the negotiations.

The differences in evaluations have a wide range of possible explanations.

Abbas needs to show quick, concrete results from the talks to persuade his skeptical people that the negotiations are worthwhile. But he said that while the talks drag on, Israel continues construction in its West Bank settlements and maintains its network of security roadblocks and checkpoints that have choked off economic and social life there.

On the Israeli side, Olmert needs success to shore up his sagging domestic popularity, stung by his inconclusive war in Lebanon in 2006 and harmed further by a string of corruption cases. He was interrogated in the latest one on Friday.

Olmert insists that at least a declaration of principles is attainable by the target date.

Talks on Jerusalem stall
One of the Palestinian officials said the 8.5 percent figure of West Bank land Israel would retain with its new map does not include east Jerusalem, where Israel has built a string of Jewish neighborhoods it intends to keep. Israel wants to put off dealing with Jerusalem, possibly the touchiest issue on the table, until the end of the process. Israel's previous proposal to keep 12 percent did not include east Jerusalem either.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem after the 1967 Mideast War, a move not recognized by the international community. East Jerusalem is home to key sites holy to Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

All but about 80,000 of the 270,000 Jewish settlers live in the blocs Israel wants to annex as part of a peace treaty. After the traumatic removal of just 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza during Israel's 2005 withdrawal, a bitter saga that is still reverberating through Israeli society, Israel wants to take down as few settlements as possible.

Palestinians, on the other hand, consider all the settlements illegal and want them removed, claiming all of the West Bank according to the 1949 cease-fire line that held until Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Mideast war.

Previous peace talks broke down in 2000 with Israel offering about 91 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza and a link between the two, a formula backed by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton. Issues including Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees were not resolved. Within months, bloody violence erupted between Israelis and Palestinians, halting peace talks until last November.

Skepticism about peace prospects
Abbas indicated skepticism about the prospects of the renewed talks.

"Nothing has been achieved in the negotiations with Israel yet," Abbas told a meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, according to a report Sunday in the Fatah-associated al-Ayyam daily and confirmed by meeting participants.

Domestic issues in both Israel and the U.S. are diverting attention from peacemaking, Abbas told Fatah leaders.

"I fear the (corruption) probe against Olmert and the American preoccupation with the (presidential) elections will negatively affect the negotiations," Abbas said, according to a member of the council, Salah Taameri.