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Talks prompt doubt, a few jokes, in Mideast

A day after their leaders announced a new push for peace, Israelis and Palestinians returned Wednesday to a familiar and deadly routine, deeply skeptical over the timetable set for the talks and whether an end to the conflict is achievable at all in the current political climate.
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A day after their leaders announced a new push for peace, Israelis and Palestinians returned Wednesday to a familiar and deadly routine, deeply skeptical over the timetable set for the talks and whether an end to the conflict is achievable at all in the current political climate.

In cafes and blogs in the Arab world, the Annapolis conference prompted little more than wisecracks. Commentators made much of a linguistic coincidence: In Arabic, "ana polis" means "I am the police."

President Bush's message, former Lebanese cabinet minister Essam Norman wrote in that country's opposition Al-Akhbar newspaper, was: "I am the policeman of the Middle East, responsible for your safety and security. Beware devious troublemaking. Israel isn't the enemy, Iran is."

The United States had succeeded only in "dragging the Arabs to a diplomatic talkfest," Norman wrote.

Few signs of a 'historic' event
While newspapers in Israel and the Palestinian territories carried extensive coverage of the Annapolis conference -- some hopeful, much of it doubtful -- there were few indications on the ground that what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called a "historic" moment in the six-decade conflict had taken place.

The talks, officially inaugurated Wednesday in a White House meeting, represent the first formal Israeli-Palestinian peace process in nearly seven years. But the failed legacy of other peace efforts named for their venues -- Madrid, Oslo and Camp David -- and the still-unfulfilled promise of a U.S.-backed "road map" toward a Palestinian state made the pledge of peace by the end of next year seem like wishful thinking to some observers.

"The event in Annapolis was a nonevent," said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah. "There was nothing there -- three speeches and that's it. For people here, the reaction is simple. We'll believe it when we see it."

Demonstrators crowded again in front of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's residence in Jerusalem. But unlike protesters of recent days, who were worried that Olmert might give up land in the West Bank to make way for a Palestinian state, the few who assembled there Wednesday morning were angry over low teachers' salaries.

The rain of rockets from the Gaza Strip intensified, as armed Palestinian groups opposed to talks with the Jewish state had promised the day before. Israeli military officials said at least 16 rockets and mortar shells were fired Wednesday into southern Israel, one of them damaging a building in a farming community in the western Negev desert.

The Israeli air force retaliated by firing on what officials described as a military post manned by gunmen from Hamas. The airstrike near the central Gaza city of Khan Younis killed two Hamas gunmen and wounded five others, Palestinian health officials said.

Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist and has labeled Abbas a "collaborator" with the Israeli occupation for attending the Annapolis meeting. The radical Islamic group, which favors armed attacks over negotiations to force Israel to concede land, release thousands of Palestinian prisoners and give rights to refugees, was not invited.

Even some officials in Olmert's cabinet questioned the feasibility of arranging peace in one year given the chaotic state of the Palestinian electorate.

Speaking to Israeli border police recruits at a military base, Avi Dichter, a leader of Olmert's Kadima party and public security minister, said he did not believe Palestinian security forces could dismantle armed Palestinian groups at war with Israel on the timeline set at Annapolis.

Doing so is a central element of the 2003 "road map," to which each side recommitted itself at the conference. Dichter suggested that the end of next year may be just the start.

"I believe that by the end of 2008 we'll have a better idea regarding their performance," Dichter said to reporters at the base. "This could lead to a very positive, significant process."

Commentary in the Arab world was less optimistic. Egypt and other countries that the United States considers moderate went to the talks only because the Bush administration "ordered" them to, said Emad Gad, an analyst with Egypt's al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"The Arab regimes exported skepticism to their people as self-defense . . . to preempt any popular reaction," Gad said. "Leaders knew Annapolis will not score big goals."

The participation of Saudi leaders, sitting for the first time with Israel in peace talks, was seen as a coup for the Bush administration. Not too much should be made of that, pro-government newspaper editor Jamal Khashoggi wrote in Wednesday's Al-Watan newspaper.

The Saudi kingdom "will have the courage to announce its relinquishing of the Annapolis conference if it decides it is opposed to it, just as it had the courage to attend a conference whose terms the Americans barely managed to define at the last moment," he wrote.

In Iraq, whose government was invited to Annapolis but declined to attend, officials said they were concentrating on Iraq's own problems. "We have a lot to do in Iraq rather than get involved in regional or international issues," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the government did not stay away out of solidarity with Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on Wednesday renewed predictions of Israel's demise. Even the most "politically doltish individuals" would realize that the talks were "a failure from the beginning," Iran's state news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

Dabbagh noted that Maliki this week signed a major agreement with Bush that would possibly prolong the U.S. presence in Iraq. "If we wanted to follow the footprints of Iran, we would have not have signed any joint declaration with the United States," Dabbagh said. "We have our independent views. This has nothing to do with Iran."

Dabbagh said the Iraqi government "will welcome any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians." His comments reflected a change in tone from the government of Saddam Hussein, who was one of Israel's staunchest opponents in the Arab world and supported Palestinian armed struggle against Israel.

Today, Iraq and Israel share the United States as a key ally while many of Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors are wary of its Shiite-led government and its friendliness with Iran.

"There is a sort of anger among the Palestinians," Dabbagh said. "They supported Saddam, and some still support Saddam."

But Dabbagh added: "We support the current government of Mahmoud Abbas."

Knickmeyer reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan and special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and special correspondent Nora Younis in Cairo contributed to this report.