EU seeks momentum for Israel, Palestinian talks

TEL AVIV, Israel (Reuters) – The European Union’s foreign policy chief said on Friday he was “less and less optimistic” that Israel and the Palestinians would meet a U.S. goal of a peace deal this year but he urged both sides to keep up momentum in 2009.

Efforts to reach an agreement had started too slowly, Javier Solana said in an interview.

“Probably this is the mistake that has been made,” he said.

The political situation is now more difficult with an Israeli party election next week to choose a successor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Solana, who is in Tel Aviv for talks with Israeli officials.

Asked about the prospects of reaching a deal this year before U.S. President George Bush leaves office in January, he said: “Everything is possible.”

But, he added, he was “less and less optimistic about the likelihood of that.”

Solana lamented that more was not done earlier to accelerate negotiations launched by the U.S. last November in Annapolis.

His goal was to “get something that will maintain the momentum and (so) we will not start at the beginning of the year 2009 in a more complicated situation”.

He did not say what those steps might be but Israeli officials have suggested a joint statement could be issued, committing both sides to continue final status talks in 2009 from wherever they leave off.

Olmert, struck by scandal, said on Thursday he would step down immediately after his centrist Kadima party chose a new leader, but he could remain caretaker premier for weeks or months until a new government is formed.

The Israeli prime minister has said he would press on with peace talks until his last day in office but as a lame duck he would likely lack the authority to make any major commitments.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has expressed doubts about the chances of reaching a peace deal this year, ruling out any partial accord.

In an interview with the Israeli Haaretz daily published on Friday, Abbas pledged to continue talks with whoever is Israel’s next prime minister.

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