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Israel: progress in Mideast talks

Israel said it has made significant progress on issues of security and future borders of a Palestinian state after a meeting between Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

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Israel said significant progress was made on the thorny issue of drawing up the borders of a future Palestinian state during top-level talks on Monday although the Palestinians remained cautious.

"We have made significant progress on the two issues of outlining the borders of the future Palestinian state and the security arrangements between Israel and the Palestinian state," a senior Israeli official said.

On the heels of a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the official spoke to journalists after attending a two-hour meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

"Olmert and Abbas have instructed the negotiating teams to move forward on these issues," he said, adding that "the teams were already working with maps during the talks."

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat agreed the talks were "very serious" and "in-depth," but said it was "really premature to jump to any conclusions and start measuring progress or lack of it."

The meeting came as Rice headed home after holding separate talks with the two leaders in a bid to spur the flagging peace process ahead of a visit by US President George W. Bush next week.

It also came as Olmert faced renewed pressure on the domestic front after Israeli fraud investigators launched a new criminal investigation into corruption charges against him last week.

The prime minister has vowed to press ahead with peace talks despite the new probe -- the fifth such investigation since he formed his government two years ago, although one case has since been dismissed.

"These were possibly the most serious talks the two sides have ever had," the prime minister's spokesman Mark Regev said after the meeting between Olmert and Abbas, their third in less than a month.

"The timetable set out in Annapolis is achievable," he said, referring to the US-hosted conference in the Maryland city in November at which the two sides vowed to strike a full peace deal by 2009.

The two sides however remain deeply divided on the core issues of the decades-old conflict that have bedeviled past peace efforts, including final borders, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements, and the status of Jerusalem.

"They (Israel) know the basic principle agreed by the two sides is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," Erakat told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah after the meeting.

"We have agreed that all issues of permanent status, core issues, will be negotiated -- Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees, water, security relations --  and we added the (Palestinian) prisoners," he said.

After meeting Rice on Sunday, Abbas said the two sides were "in a race against time," but that he still hoped to conclude an agreement by the end of the year.

Rice also said she remains hopeful the two sides can reach a peace deal by the time Bush leaves office in January 2009. On Sunday, she urged Israel to take further steps to improve the lives of West Bank Palestinians.

On her previous visit to the region, Rice secured an Israeli pledge to remove some 50 of the 500-plus roadblocks across the territory, but the Palestinians and the United Nations called the move largely insignificant.

Public radio reported on Monday that a key roadblock south of the West Bank town of Hebron would be removed on Friday, one day after Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Rice praised the decision to deploy some 600 Palestinian police reinforcements to the West Bank town of Jenin as part of a security crackdown in the north of the territory aimed at building confidence with Israel.

But the near-daily violence in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which has been sidelined from the US-backed talks, has repeatedly threatened to derail the peace process, which the Islamist movement has repeatedly denounced.

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