Less than a week before Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is set to meet Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli, Palestinian and American diplomats are anxiously preparing the groundwork for the meeting.
Dov Weisglass, special advisor to the prime minister, met with senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat Friday, and an aide to U.S.Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice will travel to Israel this weekend to meet with both Sharon and Abbas.
Sharon and Abbas are expected to meet at Sharon's office in Jerusalem next Tuesday, and the leaders are expected to agree on a set of proposals to ease conditions on the Palestinians, including a release of prisoners.
U.S. to get involved
The Egyptian daily al-Ahram reported Friday that David Walsh, an aide to Condoleeza Rice, will press both sides to fulfill commitments undertaken as part of the U.S.-sponsored Road Map peace plan and the Sharm agreement.
Al-Ahram also reported that Rice is also expected to visit the region following the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in an attempt to advance the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
Prisoner release: yes or no?
As Sharon and Abbas prepared to meet, politicians and government officials were at odds over the issue of releasing Palestinian prisoners accused of murdering Israelis.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has publicly vowed that no security prisoners with Israeli blood on their hands would be released, but a diplomatic source in Jerusalem quoted Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as saying the fate of other prisoners, including those with blood on their hands, "will be discussed."
Livni heads the Committee on Prisoner Release.
The source also denied claims that there was an endless list of security prisoners guilty of murder
that would be released in an imminent agreement, and said that a package of easier conditions will be finalized in the future meeting, in which Palestinians will present their list of priorities, which have already been raised in the press.
The source also told Ynet that "there is no chance that Ahmad Sa'adat, one of the murderers of Rehavam Ze'evi, and Fuad Shuvehi, who is responsible for the Karine A Palestinian weapons smuggling ship, will be released."
Abbas, for his part, has said that the Palestinians will present Sharon with a long list of demands, including prisoner releases, easing of conditions on the population, the return of those expelled from the 2002 Church of the Nativity siege, and further Israeli withdrawals from West Bank cities.
The Palestinian leader said that the demands are the same as those brought up during the Sharm el-Sheikh summit with Sharon. The issue of settlement expansion would also be raised, said Abbas, as would the construction of the security fence around Jerusalem, which he said was "part of an Israeli plan to increase the number of Jews in Jerusalem."
Diana Bahur-Nir contributed to this report