(photo credit: AP [file])
"The Annapolis peace parley is not a scientific experiment and the Israeli people are not guinea pigs," Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said overnight Saturday, in an AIPAC (American Israeli Political Activity Committee) conference in Philadelphia.
Dichter further stated that the US-sponsored Middle East conference in Annapolis, Maryland, "must enable both sides - Israel and the Palestinians, with the assistance of the US, the Quartet and the moderate Arab nations - to finally start implementing the first stage of the road map."
The minister added that the Palestinians must establish law enforcement bodies such as police forces, courts and "real prisons", before negotiations on a final status agreement can begin. Without such bodies, Dichter said, any declarations by the Palestinians have no merit.
Meanwhile, officials in the Prime Minister's Office said Saturday night that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would likely bring the long-anticipated invitations to the conference when she returns to the region in early November.
The comments followed yet another meeting Friday between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that ended without any dramatic breakthroughs, but with smile, handshakes and promises to keep plodding toward the drawing up of a joint declaration that can be presented in Annapolis. The meeting was held at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem.
The 21â„2-hour get-together dealt with the road to Annapolis as well as with day-to-day issues, such as the PA's release of suspects involved in an alleged plot earlier in the year to assassinate Olmert, and Israel's announcement that it would begin cutting electricity supplies to Gaza.
A senior Israeli official said both sides expressed "a strong commitment to achieving a joint statement" and discussed what would need to be in that document.
They also expressed an understanding that anything agreed upon at Annapolis or in the negotiations that summit is expected to launch will be dependent on the implementation of the first stage of the road map peace plan.
The first stage of the road map calls for the Palestinians to uproot the terrorist infrastructure, and for Israel to freeze all settlement activity and to dismantle illegal settlement outposts. Israeli officials said the US would be the judge of whether and when these commitments were met.
According to the officials, agreement that any future agreement would only be implemented after the first stage of the road map was implemented was an important procedural issue that had preoccupied the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams up until this point.
Only now that this issue was dealt with, the officials said, could the negotiators begin to deal with how exactly to address in the joint statement the core issues of Jerusalem, borders and refugees.
The Israeli team is headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and the Palestinian team by former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei.
According to Israeli officials, while the negotiators are meeting "a couple of times a week," Friday's meeting between Abbas and Olmert, which was also attended by Livni and Qurei, was essential to help define what the teams should and should not be discussing.
Israel and the PA have been at odds for weeks over what this joint statement should include, with Israel wanting it to be very broad and general, while the Palestinians prefer it to be detailed and to include a timetable for establishment of a Palestinian state.
If prior to the meeting the two sides were some 10 meters apart, one Israeli official familiar with Friday's talks said, "Now they are 9.5 meters apart."
The official gave no indication of how long it would take to bridge the gap, but said that Olmert had for some time been talking about the Annapolis meeting taking place either in the last week of November or the first week of December.
Olmert and Abbas also discussed the situation in Gaza, with Olmert assuring the PA leader that Israel would not allow a humanitarian crisis to develop, despite Israel's plan to carry out cuts to the electricity it supplies to the Strip.
The upshot of Olmert's message was that two hours of power outages a day to Gaza would not trigger a humanitarian crisis, and that Israel needed to act to protect its citizens from the daily Kassam attacks from the Gaza Strip.
Olmert, according to Israeli officials, did not give any timetable as to exactly when Israel would begin implementing this policy.
However, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i told Israel Radio Saturday that Israel would begin implementing the plan as early as Sunday or Monday, after further legal authorization was obtained.
The decision to initiate the cuts was another stage in disengaging from Gaza and was not a part of any "punishment policy," Vilna'i said.
While the plan is expected to be discussed in Sunday's regular weekly cabinet meeting, no further approval from the ministers is needed to implement it. What is needed, however, is a final nod from Olmert, Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
In addition to Livni, Olmert was joined at Friday's meeting by his chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and his foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman. Abbas was joined, in addition to Qurei, by PA negotiator Saeb Erekat and a top aide to PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.