Israeli, Palestinian leaders agree to restart talks

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed Tuesday to immediately resume long-stalled talks toward creating an independent Palestinian state by the end of next year, 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 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,” it said.

“We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008,” said the document, which was reached after weeks of intense diplomacy and was uncertain until just before Bush announced it.

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.

But 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.”

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.

But Olmert did promise 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.

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