"Significant progress" has been made on the issue of future borders of a Palestinian state in talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, officials say.
Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister hosted Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president at his residence in Jerusalem on Monday for their third round of talks in less than a month.
A senior Israeli official said on Monday that they "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".
"Olmert and Abbas have instructed the negotiating teams to move forward on these issues," the official who declined to be named, said, adding that "the teams were already working with maps during the talks".
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, agreed the talks were "very serious … with a very candid exchange", but said it was "really premature to jump to any conclusions and start measuring progress or lack of it".
A Palestinian official confirmed that the two sides had exchanged maps.
He said the Palestinians want all of the West Bank – which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War – as part of their state, but are ready to give up nearly two per cent of the territory in exchange for an equal amount of land from what is now Israel.
Israel wants to keep parts of the West Bank in order to retain large Jewish settlement blocs and for what it says are security needs.
Maps presented by Israel several weeks ago sought to keep about 10 per cent of the West Bank, the Palestinian official said.
He said that despite the gaps, the maps indicated the sides are moving closer to a compromise on the issue of final borders.
The talks came hours after Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, completed her latest visit to the region as part of US efforts to prod the sides towards a final peace agreement by the end of the year.
Rice met Olmert for the second time in less than 48 hours before the Israeli leader met Abbas, and urged him to take more concrete steps to ease movement and access for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Olmert on Monday expressed readiness to make "tangible" changes in the West Bank, telling Abbas that he understood that their months of talks must be accompanied by action on the ground, Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said.
"We understand fully that political dialogue must be supported by tangible steps on the ground or you can have cynicism on the ground," Regev said, but did not elaborate.
Erekat confirmed that Olmert told Abbas Israel wants to alleviate the situation for Palestinians in the West Bank, but no changes were announced, he said.
"We heard this many times before," Erekat said.
"We hope that this time the Palestinian people will be able to see it with their own eyes. The understanding of Israel will depend on the actual removal of the roadblocks, not just understanding that we suffer."
On Sunday, Rice made unusually direct remarks about the consequences of Israeli construction and roadblocks in the West Bank, saying she "continues to raise with the Israelis the importance of creating an atmosphere that is conducive to negotiations".
"That means doing nothing, certainly, that would suggest that there is any prejudicing of the final terms" of a deal setting up a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank, Rice said.
Palestinians say that Israel has removed only small barriers or partially dismantled obstacles despite pledging to pull them down.
Rice said she will question the "qualitative character’" of some of the roadblocks Israel has already removed.
"We don’t want to get into a numbers game where you just remove ‘X’ number of roadblocks but it’s not improving the lives of the Palestinians," she said.
Since 2000, Israel set up a network of hundreds of checkpoints, gates and barriers in the occupied West Bank.
After Rice’s last trip in late March, Israel said it planned to remove 61 barriers but a UN survey subsequently found that only 44 obstacles had been scrapped and that most were of little or no significance.
Abbas has sounded increasingly disheartened in recent weeks, warning that Israel’s reluctance to bring real change on the ground is threatening chances of closing a deal by the time George Bush ends his term as US president in January.
The meetings between Olmert and Abbas have produced few obvious results since talks resumed last year, although the sides have insisted some secrecy is necessary for success.
The negotiations are meant to solve the most contentious issues in the decades-old conflict, including borders, Palestinian refugees and the dispute over Jerusalem.
Abbas aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Palestinian president is giving the negotiations two or three months to produce progress and will consider resigning if he believes the talks have failed.
Regev said on Monday it was still realistic to reach an agreement by the end of the year.
Probe Clouds Talks
But the talks between the leaders took place amid fears that an inquiry into Olmert’s conduct while he was finance minister could end hopes of any peace deal soon.
Israeli police questioned Olmert on Friday, the fifth criminal investigation they have opened into Olmert’s activities since he took office as prime minister in 2006.
Olmert is being scrutinised over political appointments and property dealings. He has not been charged.
Media have been prohibited from reporting the details of the new case, which is subject to a court-issued gagging order, but the investigation has already led to calls for Olmert to suspend himself or resign.
(Aljazeera and agencies)