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Bush, Olmert, Abbas dine as envoys negotiate

Image: US Secretary of State Rice sits between Israeli PM Olmert and Palestinian President Abbas during a dinner in Washington
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sits between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a dinner at the State Department in Washington on Monday hosted by President Bush.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush stepped cautiously into the most direct Mideast peacemaking of his administration on Monday, meeting separately with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to explore whether peace is possible. “Difficult compromises” will be required but the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are committed to making them, he said.

A day ahead of a major Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md., Bush said he was optimistic. The gathering is to launch the first direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians of Bush’s nearly seven years in office, and has attracted Arab and other outside backing.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have already said they want to conclude a bargain within the 14 months that Bush has left in office. The two sides were unable to frame a blueprint for the talks before they came to the United States, and negotiations over the text were expected to continue into Tuesday.

At an evening dinner at the State Department for members of some 50 delegations invited to the talks, Bush toasted the effort and told the guests: “We’ve come together this week because we share a common goal: two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security. Achieving this goal requires difficult compromises, and the Israelis and Palestinians have elected leaders committed to making them.”

Arab participation considered critical
Bush earlier emerged from an Oval Office meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and told him: “I’m looking forward to continuing our serious dialogue with you and the president of the Palestinian Authority to see whether or not peace is possible. I’m optimistic. I know that you’re optimistic.”

Next, he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who stressed the need to address issues of Palestinian statehood, sticking points that have doomed previous peace efforts.

“We have a great deal of hope that this conference will produce permanent status negotiations, expanded negotiations, over all permanent status issues that would lead to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people,” Abbas said. “This is a great initiative and we need his (Bush’s) continuing effort to achieve this objective.”

Olmert said that international support — from Bush and also, presumably, from the Arab nations that will attend the conference — could make this effort succeed where others have failed.

“This time, it’s different because we are going to have a lot of participation in what I hope will launch a serious process of negotiation between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert said. He was referring to the talks expected to begin in earnest after this week’s U.S.-hosted meetings.

“We and the Palestinians will sit together in Jerusalem and work out something that will be very good,” Olmert said. As to timing, he added later: “We definitely will have to sit down very soon.”

After months of trying to forge a joint outline, Israel and the Palestinians have made an 11th-hour push in recent days to come up with a statement for presentation at Tuesday's gathering in Annapolis. It will be the first time that Israel, a large group of Arab states and international envoys from around the world will sit down together to try to relaunch a peace process.

Three obstacles cited
Chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia said after an afternoon meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and others that details of the document had not been finalized. “Our efforts are still going on to reach this document,” he said.

A member of the Palestinian delegation, speaking on condition on anonymity because talks are still going on, said three main obstacles have emerged:

  • All sides have agreed that two states should be established, but the Palestinians have objected to referring to Israel as a “Jewish state.”
  • American and Israeli officials are resisting Palestinian efforts to include language about “ending the occupation that started in 1967,” referring to the Israel-occupied West Bank.
  • The Palestinians want the document to set a one-year timetable for reaching a resolution. The Israelis do not want this, and the Americans are open the idea.

Talks on the joint statement had faltered over a Palestinian desire that it address, at least in general terms, key issues of Palestinian statehood — final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who lost homes in Israel following its 1948 creation.

Israel has pressed for a broader, vaguer statement of commitment to two states living side-by-side in peace. It has promised to negotiate the contentious issues, however, in the formal negotiations that are to follow the conference.

Bush will open the Annapolis conference by making clear in a speech that Mideast peace is a top priority for the rest of his time in office through January 2009, but he is expected to conclude that the time is not right for him to advance his own ideas on how to achieve that, said national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

"The Israelis and Palestinians have waited a long time for this vision to be realized, and I call upon all those gathering in Annapolis this week to redouble their efforts to turn dreams of peace into reality," Bush said in a statement Sunday night.

The run-up to the meeting has been fraught with disputes, skepticism and suspicion about the opposing parties' good faith. And expectations remain low.

Clinching a joint statement of objectives from Abbas and Olmert, indeed, is seen as a tall order because of the charged issues that divide the two sides. Rice wasn't able to bridge the gaps, even after eight missions to the region this year.

Still, whatever joint agreement the Israelis and Palestinians present at Annapolis will be a starting point and is likely to sketch only vague bargaining terms. The big statehood questions that have doomed previous peace efforts would come later.

Saeb Erekat, a principal Palestinian negotiator, told The Associated Press on Monday that his side wants, among other things, language providing for the monitoring of two states living side by side in peace and also some specification that a peace treaty should be accomplished before the end of 2008.

Hamas a wild cardThe conference, which is taking place in Washington and Annapolis, Md., is meant to draw outside backing for the difficult talks that will follow. The Arab League endorsement of the gathering, while reluctant, was considered crucial because Abbas needs to be shored up, especially after Islamic Hamas militants routed his loyalists in the Gaza Strip in June and now rule there.

In his speech before the gathering on Tuesday, Olmert will reassert his position that implementation of any peace deal would require a halt to attacks on Israel from Gaza, Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

Hamas is the main wild card in renewed peace efforts. Israel and the Palestinians hope that progress on peacemaking will weaken the Islamic group and give Abbas the ability to extend his influence to include that territory, too. But there is no guarantee that logic will prevail and that Hamas will be removed.

Olmert has not explicitly called for the Islamic group's ouster.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Abbas' seat of government, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki called on Israel to commit at the conference to a complete freeze on settlement construction.

Olmert made clear Sunday that Annapolis is but a start."

Syria, which has been in a state of war with Israel for six decades, agreed Sunday to attend the session, giving Bush full backing from all 16 Arab states who were invited, plus the Arab League. It hopes to use forum to press for the return of the Golan Heights, strategic territory Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war.

Saudi Arabia's minister of transportation and minister of information and culture, Jbarah Al-Seresri, said Monday that the cabinet headed by King Abdullah has "expressed the kingdom's hope that the conference will deal with the essential issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict, aiming to approach fair and general peace in all aspects within a timetable, according to President George W. Bush's perspective, to establish a Palestinian state relying on international legitimacy, the road map and the Arab initiative."