The chief Palestinian peace negotiator on Wednesday cast serious doubt on US President George W. Bush's goal of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of the year, saying it would take a "miracle" To wrap up an agreement.
In another sign of frustration with the pace of the talks, the Palestinians urged the European Union not to upgrade its ties with Israel unless Israel halts West Bank settlement expansion. The diplomatic campaign signaled a new Palestinian approach to what is emerging as one of the biggest points of friction in the negotiations. Israel and the Palestinians resumed peace talks at a US-hosted summit last November and set a year-end target for reaching an agreement.
The lead Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qureia, said Wednesday that it is increasingly unlikely the sides can meet their jointly stated goal.
Speaking at a meeting of the ruling Fatah movement, Qureia said negotiating teams are working on all the key issues at the heart of the conflict, including the final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and the final status of Jerusalem.
But "gaps still exist," Qureia said. "If we continue in negotiations progress can be made, but not final progress. I don't think that we can reach an agreement this year unless there is a miracle."
'International community should take firm stand'While the Palestinians have grown increasingly impatient with the pace of negotiations, Qureia's comments were the strongest doubts yet about the timeline.
Israeli officials have also raised their own questions, saying a framework agreement, as opposed to a final deal, is the most likely outcome of the talks.
Earlier this week, a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was overshadowed by the settlement issue. Abbas complained about continued Israeli expansion - plans for hundreds more apartments in east Jerusalem were announced earlier this week - while Olmert said he was upset about a letter in which Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad asked the EU not to upgrade ties with Israel.
On Wednesday, Fayyad spoke about his new campaign publicly for the first time during a visit to the West Bank village of Bilin. He said the international community should take a firm stand against what he said where Israeli violations of its international commitments.