Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Despite the continuing deadlock in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority aimed at reaching a permanent understanding, Israel announced Thursday that the two sides had come to an agreement on an outstanding interim issue - the building of a Palestinian seaport.
Israeli negotiator Gilad Sher and chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat signed an agreement Wednesday evening enabling construction to begin at once on a seaport in Gaza.
After weeks of negotiations, Sher and Erekat resolved the last two "contentious issues" - the first relating to security checks and the second to environmental problems - connected with the construction, a statement from Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office said.
The PA plans to begin construction soon, hoping to open the port in about 18 months' time.
Construction of a seaport was agreed in principle in an earlier bilateral accord, but the details of implementation were never worked out. Israel, which wants any future Palestinian entity to be demilitarized, feared that the PA would import weapons if it had open access to the outside world.
Meanwhile, in a bid to break the impasse on "final status" issues, the US is working on a draft of a new bridging proposal expected for presentation to the two sides soon.
Sources say that the proposal will be comprehensive, including ideas on the future of Jerusalem, the most contentious unresolved issue between Israel and the PA.
According to a report in the daily Ha'aretz newspaper, the US is now pushing for a deal that excludes an agreement on Jerusalem. Quoting American sources, the paper said Washington now believes the chances of convincing PA Chairman Yasser Arafat to give up his demand for partial rule over the Temple Mount are "virtually nil."
Barak said recently Israel would not consider signing an agreement that did not include Jerusalem, but Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said on Thursday Israel had not rejected the idea out of hand.
It was possible Israel could sign an agreement with the PA not including Jerusalem, provided the agreement contained a clause ending the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Ben-Ami indicated.
Israel wants a final accord to incorporate an undertaking by the Palestinian side that the conflict is over, once and for all; a deal not encompassing Jerusalem would make that highly unlikely.
Arafat has presented himself as the guardian of the holy places, continuing in the footsteps of the late rulers of Jordan and Morocco, Hussein and Hassan.
Washington has come up with a number of recent proposals for breaking the deadlock regarding who should enjoy sovereignty over the Temple Mount. One suggestion is that the United Nations Security Council should be given sovereignty over the highly disputed location.
In a radio interview, Ben-Ami said Israel had not been presented with a formal plan for the UN Security Council to rule over the Temple Mount, but he stressed Israel would not consider giving up its rights to the site.
The Temple Mount is the location of the ancient First and Second Temples and Judaism's holiest site. It later became revered by Muslims, who hold one of two mosques located there as the third holiest in Islam.
Arafat said Thursday he suspects that the bridging proposals to be presented by the US would, in fact, be in line with Israeli ideas.