Abbas, Olmert press for peace accord soon
Pledge to use Md. conference as step toward settlement
RAMALLAH, West Bank - Israeli and Palestinian officials hope to reach a comprehensive peace agreement before the end of President Bush's term, Israeli, Palestinian and American officials said yesterday.
That goal fits with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts to push the two sides toward a peace plan during her tenure. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel said that they would use the coming Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., to begin substantive talks on the four contentious final status issues that have bedeviled peace negotiators since 1979.
"The American, Israeli, and Palestinian sides are all insistent that we reach an end before the end of President Bush's term in office, and that is what we wish," Abbas said at a news conference at Yasser Arafat's old compound. Standing beside him, Rice nodded approvingly.
Olmert strongly endorsed the peace talks in a speech to a Jerusalem audience the night before. While the Palestinians pushed hard for the conference to tackle the final status issues, the Israelis had balked, saying they wanted security needs met first.
Olmert, conceding nothing on the security question, said, "Annapolis will be the jumping-off point for continued serious and in-depth negotiations which will not avoid any issue or ignore any division which has clouded our relations with the Palestinian people for many years."
But in his speech, delivered in Hebrew and broadcast live in Israel, Olmert cast the issue of a timetable far more cautiously than did Abbas. "If we and the Palestinians act with determination," he said, "there is a chance that we can achieve real accomplishments, perhaps even before the end of President Bush's term in office."
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators will continue to haggle over just how hard and firm the Annapolis commitment to final status negotiations should be, but the public endorsement of something like a timetable is a positive sign that Annapolis will be the starting point for substantive peace negotiations, Israeli, Arab, and American officials said.
Rice's aides were jubilant. "We didn't expect him to talk about negotiating on all the issues," a senior State Department official said of Olmert's speech. "I found it frankly remarkable that he would choose the podium there, where he knew that audience would be watching for a signal."
But the adoption of a loose time frame for completing the talks was no guarantee of success, and Israeli and Arab officials said Rice still faced an uphill battle. They noted that negotiators had not decided how to tackle the four final status issues: the contours of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the removal of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the fate of Palestinian refugees who had left, or who were forced to leave, their homes, most before or during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Israeli officials said there remained deep concern in Israel that Rice was pushing too hard and too fast, risking a collapse of the talks before they began. Some Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they did not want to be seen publicly criticizing the United States, drew a parallel to President Clinton's peace push in his administration's last months in 2000. Many Israelis say the failure of those talks led to the second Palestinian intifada.
Palestinian officials said that Abbas was pushing an ambitious timeline to try to seal a final peace deal within six months of the Annapolis conference. American and Israeli officials said that was unlikely.
Rice has yet to formally issue invitations for the Annapolis conference, which her deputies say they expect will be held late this month. The United States plans to invite Israel's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Meanwhile, Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, is pushing ahead with plans to bolster the Palestinian government so that it will be functional should the Palestinians achieve nationhood. To that end, he said he was organizing a donors' conference in Paris in mid-December that would seek aid from various institutions and governments to help to prop up Abbas' beleaguered Palestinian Authority, security forces, and public works.
Blair, who accepted the job of Middle East envoy for the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nations this summer, said he had been subjected to flack from friends for taking on an intractable issue.
"I've lost count of the number of friends who've told me as I took this post, 'Good luck,' " he told the audience before Olmert's speech Sunday in Jerusalem. "You can see this bubble coming out of their head that says, 'He's gone crazy.' "