Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed Tuesday to immediately resume long-stalled talks toward a deal by the end of next year that would create an independent Palestinian state, using a U.S.-hosted Mideast peace conference to launch their first negotiations in seven years.
In a joint statement read by President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to start discussions on the core issues of the conflict next month and accepted the United States as arbiter of interim steps.
“We express our determination to bring an end to bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict between our peoples; to usher in a new era of peace, based on freedom, security, justice, dignity, respect and mutual recognition; to propagate a culture of peace and nonviolence; to confront terrorism and incitement, whether committed by Palestinians or Israelis,” Abbas and Olmert said in the statement.
“We agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception, as specified in previous agreements,” the statement continued. “We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008.”
The conference at the U.S. Naval Academy has been greeted by heavy skepticism, with many questioning its timing and prospects for success, especially given the weaknesses of Olmert and Abbas, whose leadership is challenged by the militant Hamas movement.
Saudis want Lebanon, Syria at table
And the task is complicated by Arab pressure to resolve other long simmering disputes Israel has with Syria and Lebanon.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in his remarks to the conference, called for the earliest possible resumption of talks with Lebanon and Syria, which wants the return of the Golan Heights, land seized by Israel during the 1967 war.
”We have come to support the launching of serious and continuing talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis that will address all the core and final status issues,” Saud said. “These talks must be followed by the launching of the Syrian and Lebanese tracks at the earliest.”
Damascus demands return of land
Syria said Tuesday that Israel should pull out of occupied land before Arab countries would normalize ties with the Jewish state.
"The establishment of normal ties with Israel ... must be the fruit of comprehensive peace and not precede it," Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad told a closed session of the conference in Annapolis, attended by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"To phrase it clearly and decisively that this (normalization) comes after the total Israeli withdrawal from the 1967 Arab land," he said in a speech obtained by Reuters.
"We are sincere in seeking a comprehensive and just peace and posses the political will to achieve it."
Bush, in a separate address, defended the decision to hold the Annapolis conference, saying it was the right time to launch peace talks and urging representatives of more than 50 participating countries and organizations to support the effort.
“First, the time is right because Palestinians and Israelis have leaders who are determined to achieve peace,” he said. “Second, the time is right because a battle is under way for the future of the Middle East and we must not cede victory to the extremists. Third, the time is right because the world understands the urgency of supporting these negotiations.”
Divisive issues not in joint statement
Under the workplan, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will begin talks on the most contentious issues in the conflict on Dec. 12 and Abbas and Olmert will hold private biweekly talks throughout the process, which will be monitored by the United States.
Yet none of those difficult issues were mentioned in the joint document, which was to be endorsed by the conference participants, including key Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and Syria, later in the day.
And, despite their agreement and impassioned rhetoric, neither Olmert nor Abbas showed any sign of yielding on the fundamental differences that have led to the collapse of all previous peace efforts: the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of disputed Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
Later, the White House said that Bush will meet simultaneously Wednesday at the White House with both Olmert and Abbas. He initially had been scheduled to meet each separately, and those meetings will go on as planned.
“I think it will be, how do you keep moving forward on this path,” Dana Perino said in announcing the addition to the schedule.
She said the meeting could be helpful as a kind of send-off for the two Mideast leaders. “If they have something on their mind that they are troubled about and want to share with him, he’s got an open mind, he’s got an open door,” she said.
In his speech to the conference, Olmert promised that “the negotiations will address all the issues which thus far have been evaded. We will not avoid any subject. While this will be an extremely difficult process for many of us, it is nevertheless inevitable.”
For his part, Abbas made an impassioned appeal to Israelis to support the peace process, saying that war and terrorism “belong to the past.”
“Neither we nor you must beg for peace from the other. It is a joint interest for us and you,” he said. “Peace and freedom is a right for us, just as peace and security is a right for you and us.”
“It is time for the cycle of blood, violence and occupation to end. It is time for us to look at the future together with confidence and hope. It is time for this tortured land that has been called the land of love and peace to live up to its name,” Abbas said.
His speech was immediately rejected by Hamas, which stormed to power in the Gaza Strip in June, a month before Bush announced plans for the peace conference.
Abbas “has no mandate to discuss, to agree, or to erase any word related to our rights,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in Gaza. “He is isolated (and) represents himself only.”
In the face of such resistance, Arab support for the process is deemed essential and Olmert, speaking directly to those at the conference who have no relations with his country, said: “It is time to end the boycott and alienation toward the state of Israel.”
“We no longer and you no longer have the privilege of clinging to dreams which are disconnected from the suffering of our peoples,” he said.
After reading aloud the freshly reached agreement, Bush shook hands with Abbas and Olmert. Then those leaders shook each other’s hands.
To maximize the moment of potential breakthrough, the three went through the gestures again. This time, they clasped hands together. And, for a moment, Bush stepped back and raised his hands to encourage the other two to come together for a handshake, which they did.
It harkened back to a memorable image of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, in one of his own Mideast efforts.
Saud applauded after Olmert finished his speech, according to a member of the U.S. delegation.
It was a significant gesture from the nation considered the linchpin of Arab support for the coming talks. Saud, a veteran of past peace efforts, had said before the session that he would not shake Olmert’s hand. Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, and Saud told reporters he would do nothing to normalize relations until after Palestinian statehood and other territorial issues were resolved.
Saeb Erekat, a principal Palestinian negotiator, sounded upbeat, saying that after seven years of a stalemate “now we have an opportunity” to get back to serious talks with broad backing.
“We have the whole world. We have President Bush. And it is going to be two states living side by side in peace,” Erekat said. “Today is over. What’s important is tomorrow.”
Privately, however, members of the Palestinian delegation expressed skepticism that a deal resolving all the so-called final status issues could be reached within a year, and by the end of Bush’s term in January 2009.
The joint document is general and doesn’t deal with the difficult issues that that long divided Israel and the Palestinians. And the negotiation process is expected to be very tough and very long, according to Palestinians, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to publicly spoil the conference’s positive atmosphere.
The Palestinians believe Israel is not ready for total peace and Olmert will face a difficult time politically as any deal takes shape. Meantime, Abbas is seen as reliable, but also weak and a leader who can’t in the end deliver on an agreement.