olmert and aliza 224.88.
(photo credit: Avi Ohayun/ GPO)
An elusive joint Israeli-Palestinian statement on the contours of future peace talks is within reach, a senior member of the Palestinian delegation said Monday, hours before a high-stakes international conference on the Mideast was to open.
"We will reach a joint paper today or tomorrow," Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told The Associated Press. "There is a persistent American effort to have this statement."
After months of trying to forge a joint outline, Israel and the Palestinians have made an 11th-hour push in recent days to come up with a statement for presentation at the gathering, which is to be the first time that Israel, a large group of Arab states and international envoys from around the world sit down together to try to re-launch a peace process.
But Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Qurei failed to agree Sunday night on a joint statement, Israel Radio reported.
The two met for unscheduled talks in the foreign minister's Washington hotel to try, albeit unsuccessfully, to reach an agreement on the declaration.
Livni had earlier met US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss the issue of the joint declaration and Rice hosted the foreign minister and Qurei for dinner after their talks Sunday night.
Earlier Sunday, Livni said that regardless of whether a joint document would emerge, the Annapolis conference would launch a negotiating process that would deal with the core issues. The statements to be delivered on Tuesday were meant to launch that process, she said.
US President George Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said the joint statement was not as important as it might have seemed when it was first broached. The two sides took the unexpected step of seeking negotiations, and the declaration no longer needed to serve as a vehicle to prod them to do so, Hadley said.
"If we get something, if they can agree on some things as an input to the negotiations, that would be fine," Hadley said. "But I think it is really no longer on the critical path to a successful conference."
Livni said the conference would be a defining moment in the Middle East, clearly casting those who came to the meeting as "moderates" and those who did not as "extremists."
"We are going to an event in which the whole Arab world is participating, which is meant to support the process between Israel and the Palestinians," she said. "There are those who are coming to Annapolis and those who are yelling and saying that it is forbidden to make peace."
Those in the later category, she said, included Hamas and Iran.
Livni said Israel had learned from the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000 that the Palestinians would not be able to reach an agreement with Israel without Arab support. At the same time, however, she said the countries at the conference would not be involved in the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Their role, she said, was to support the process, not to become involved in the negotiations.
The foreign minister noted that Abbas was instrumental in getting the Saudis to participate in the conference, convincing them that Israel was going to Annapolis "meaning business."
As well as the topic of the joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration, another key issue that remains a source of deep disagreement a day before the conference is whether the Golan Heights will be on the meeting's agenda.
Syria released a statement on Sunday announcing its participation in the conference by saying that it had accepted a US invitation to attend after the Syrian track was placed "on the conference agenda in accordance with decisions of international laws and the Arab Peace Initiative."
One senior government official said that while the focus of the Annapolis conference was on the Palestinian-Israeli bilateral track, it was not inconceivable that out of this process, other bilateral tracks - such as an Israeli-Syrian track - could emerge.
Olmert told reporters accompanying him Sunday that if "conditions ripen," Israel would look favorably on negotiations with Syria. He said that Israel had always been in favor of Damascus's participation in the Annapolis conference, and added that the US had made no promises to Syria to ensure their participation.
Syria's official news agency, SANA, said Syria would be represented at the Annapolis conference by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad. The decision was made "after the Syria track was added to the conference agenda," SANA said.
Syria has long said it would only attend the meeting if the Golan Heights were on the agenda.
The decision to send a deputy foreign minister and not the country's top diplomat appeared to indicate that Syria was not entirely confident the conference would address the Golan, which Israel captured in the Six Day War.
Livni said that while the Golan would not be on the Annapolis meeting's agenda, the Syrians would surely raise the issue Tuesday afternoon at one of the three workshops in Annapolis dealing with the issue of "comprehensive peace." She likewise said that others might raise the issue of Jerusalem, a reference to Saudi Arabia.
"Everybody can talk about what they want," she said.
The State Department press office would not confirm reports in the Syrian media that the US had committed to officially putting the Golan Heights on the agenda, let alone sent a written confirmation. However, State Department officials, like Israeli officials, have left open the possibility that Syria could introduce the issue of its own accord during one of the conference sessions.
"We think Annapolis represents an opportunity for all those who would like to make meaningful steps toward peace, to come and represent their views," a State Department official said Sunday, noting that an official agenda had not yet been released. "Annapolis attendees are entitled to express their views and their national interests as they see them."
The White House has also welcomed broader Arab participation, of which Syrian participation is a key component.
"We welcome the attendance of so many countries from the region and around the world," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "This large number signals broad support for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts."
Later Sunday, Bush pledged his commitment to a two-state solution.
"I remain personally committed to implementing my vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," Bush said in a statement released by the White House.
Bush added that the conference would signal international support for the Israelis' and Palestinians' intention to commence negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of peace between the two peoples.
"The broad attendance at this conference by regional states and other key international participants demonstrates the international resolve to seize this important opportunity to advance freedom and peace in the Middle East," continued the statement.
Meanwhile, Nabil Sha'ath, a close adviser to Abbas, said on Sunday afternoon in Washington that the two sides were going to make another effort later in the day to draw a joint declaration of principles. He said he thought it was unlikely that they would make dramatic progress in three hours when they had failed to do so over the previous 50 days, but that he was still guardedly optimistic about the Annapolis summit.
He added that even if a joint statement could not be agreed upon, "we will engage on the basis of the terms of reference" previously agreed on by the two sides.
Sha'ath said he was optimistic because he saw a real opportunity for progress, and plainly 48 countries had been seeking invitations for Annapolis because they realized how important it was to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I don't expect any more [from the summit] than an immediate restart of the negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinians, and hopefully eventually Israel and the Syrians," he said.
He added that success in the diplomatic endeavor would strengthen both Abbas and Olmert and the support for their leadership by their respective peoples.
Nabil Abu Radeinah, another adviser to Abbas, was far less optimistic. He said he did not think the Israelis were serious about peacemaking, and noted that despite seven or eight meetings between Olmert and Abbas, the two sides had not been able to agree "on a single word" in the planned joint declaration.
Olmert and Livni were to be joined in Washington on Sunday night by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who arrived following a brief trip to New York for meetings. Olmert was accompanied by his wife Aliza.
Olmert is scheduled to meet with US President George W. Bush on Monday for the first of three meetings in as many days. Bush is also scheduled to hold a meting with Abbas that same day.
On Tuesday the three will hold trilateral talks in Annapolis, and Olmert will again huddle with the US president on Wednesday, in a meeting expected to focus on Iran.
Meanwhile, Rice is hosting a dinner reception for the participants of the conference at the State Department on Monday evening.
Hilary Leila Krieger and AP contributed to this report.
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