Mideast peace talks revived

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged Tuesday to begin negotiations next month for a possible peace agreement, but their speeches before representatives of 40 countries — including Arab nations with no diplomatic ties to Israel — laid bare the deep grievances between them and the tough compromises that will be necessary to forge a lasting deal.

The conference, held at the U.S. Naval Academy, marked the most intense U.S. effort to restart talks in the seven years since they collapsed at the end of the Clinton administration. President Bush indicated Tuesday that pursuing a peace deal that eluded his predecessors will be a central element of the final year of his presidency, and he agreed to a broad U.S. role in overseeing implementation of any agreements.

“I believe now is precisely the right time to begin these negotiations,” he told the delegates arrayed around a U-shaped table in a stately room honoring academy graduates killed in operations or in action. “America will do everything in our power to support their quest for peace, but we cannot achieve it for them.”

Bush, who has typically remained wary of intervening personally in such negotiations, spent only three hours in Annapolis and left Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in charge of most of the one-day gathering. However, the presence of so many Arab figures, including Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, was a rare event in the long history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and signaled a broader Arab willingness to give the U.S. peace effort a chance. Conference delegates privately complained about chaotic scheduling and an air of uncertainty surrounding the proceedings, but in their speeches throughout the day, many expressed appreciation for what they perceived as Washington’s re-engagement.

Notably absent were representatives from Iran and Hamas, the militant group that won Palestinian legislative elections and now controls the Gaza Strip — effectively half the population of any future Palestinian state. Neither party was invited, and Hamas condemned the conference as a waste of time. Iraq, Kuwait and Libya received invitations but did not send delegates.

Deadlock broken at the last moment

Before giving his speech, Bush read aloud a joint statement that the two sides had painstakingly negotiated over the past two months. A deadlock over the statement was broken only minutes before the conference started, mainly by the watering down or elimination of phrases that troubled each side. In a sign of the difficulties, talks had dragged on as late as 4 a.m. Tuesday and the statement still did not specifically address any of the core issues dividing the two sides or mention previous U.N. resolutions that are supposed to form the basis for future talks. Negotiations are supposed to begin on Dec. 12, with the aim of completing them by the end of Bush’s term.

A previous peace initiative inaugurated by Bush in 2003, known as the “road map,” quickly ended in failure. Under the deal reached Tuesday, the two sides agreed to once again begin implementing the road map, a three-phase performance-based plan, and, as in 2003, the United States agreed to once again monitor it. Israel, for instance, must end the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, while the Palestinian security forces must target militant groups that attack Israelis.

But both sides also agreed to immediately begin negotiating a final peace deal, which previously had been reserved for the last phase of the road map. U.S. officials hope that as the final agreement becomes clearer, both sides will be inspired to make more rapid progress on the ground-level details that had previously stalled the road map. But in a concession sought by Israel, no peace deal can be implemented unless earlier road map obligations are met, and the United States will judge the level of implementation.

John Wolf, at the time an assistant secretary of state, was tasked in 2003 with overseeing the implementation but he said in a recent interview that despite his requests, top administration officials never permitted him to make his reports public for fear of offending each side.

U.S. will monitor peace talks beginning Dec. 12

A senior U.S. official said that the administration has not decided how to set up the monitoring mission. He also said that Bush will name a senior military official this week to act as a consultant to the parties on security questions stemming from a peace agreement, including whether international peacekeeping forces or airspace restrictions would be necessary. That designated official, whom Israeli officials identified as former NATO commander James Jones, would complement former British prime minister Tony Blair, who serves as economic envoy. U.S. officials declined to comment on whether Jones would be named.

Israel ‘not indifferent’ to Palestinians’ suffering

In his speech, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seized the opportunity to directly address Arab officials, a group that included 16 representatives of the 22-member Arab League, among them the deputy foreign minister of Syria. He referred to the Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, as “my friend” and said that Israelis understand the humiliations that have been inflicted on Palestinians and how that has fed hatred against Israel. “We are not indifferent to this suffering,” he said.

“There is not a single Arab state in the north, east or south with which we do not seek peace,” he said. “We are prepared to make a painful compromise.”

In his speech, Abbas also expressed his hope for peace and praised Olmert, saying that he “has shown a desire for peace that I felt during our bilateral meetings.” Abbas notably did not mention the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is still regarded as a hero in the Palestinian areas but whom Bush spurned as a terrorist.

Tough path ahead, leaders signal

But the two leaders sprinkled their speeches with references to diplomatic code words that point to the tough path ahead. Abbas, for instance, referred to a U.N. resolution that Palestinians believe gives them the right to return to their land in Israel, while Olmert mentioned a 2004 letter that Bush gave former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon that said that such refugee returns were unrealistic.

In his own speech, Bush sketched a much more ominous view of the region than Olmert and Abbas. “The battle is underway for the future of the Middle East, and we must not cede victory to the extremists,” he said. “With their violent actions and contempt for human life, the extremists are seeking to impose a dark vision on the Palestinian people, a vision that feeds on hopelessness and despair to sow chaos in the Holy Land. If this vision prevails, the future of the region will be endless terror, endless war and endless suffering.”

With the Syrian delegate in the room, Bush also took the opportunity to mention the tense battle over the next Lebanese president, warning against “outside interference and intimidation” by Syria and its allies.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said Bush’s speech seemed jarring next to the more uplifting visions of Olmert and Abbas. “It plays so badly in the region when he tries to make this an anti-terrorism conference,” he said.

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