"We are not confiscating additional Palestinian lands but building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem which are expected to remain in Israeli hands," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday evening.
The two met in Jerusalem after Rice slammed
Israeli construction projects in the eastern part of the city. The two-hour meeting covered recent regional developments but primarily centered on the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians.
Regarding building endeavors in the settlements, the prime minister stressed that Israel's policy has not changed. "It remains as it was – and it was clarified to our counterparts, both American and Palestinian, long before the Annapolis conference and then again after it," said Olmert.
Meanwhile, State officials in Jerusalem said on Sunday that the negotiations with the PA appeared to be at an impasse. Several options are being considered to display some, if any, progress during Rice's visit.
"The Palestinians want something written, an anchor of sorts in case the government is replaced – but such a document is far from Israel's mind, as it has made no achievements. And the Americans, who are currently wrapping up the current administration, are looking for a 'diet document," said a State official.
According to the source, the three-way meetings held between Rice, Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni and top Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia – as well as the scheduled meeting between the secretary with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad, are intended to explore possibilities towards this end.
The official said that not only was little chance of any genuine progress by the end of the year, but the talks even appear to be backtracking in certain areas.
Olmert and Livni's offices see the matter in a somewhat more optimistic light.
Meanwhile Jerusalem is waiting to hear Hamas' response to Israel's demands as a prerequisite for a truce. A delegation of Hamas officials and other leaders from armed groups in Gaza are currently in Cairo to meet with Egyptian intelligence minister and top mediator, Gen. Omar Suleiman. An answer is expected in the coming days.
State officials already note a tentative decrease in attacks, though no formal announcement has been made regarding Hamas' decision.
"Everything can change within this very hour, but right now, this appears to be a signal of sorts," they said. The ceasefire agreement, they added, is the only way to accelerate talks to secure the release of
kidnapped solider Gilad Shalit, likely as part of the second phase of the truce agreement – in conjunction with the opening of the Rafah crossing.
"Soon we will have to talk about the hefty price Israel will have to pay in exchange for Shalit. There are 450 prisoners we need to free, of them 70 have blood on their hands, and that number may rise to over 100. This is an unbearable price, but it is one we will have to discuss in the near future," said the officials.