(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
While no invitations have been set, a joint declaration has not yet been finalized and it is not clear which countries will in the end send representatives, the Prime Minister's Office is gearing up for the long-discussed meeting in Annapolis a week from Tuesday.
According to still very tentative plans, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will meet in Annapolis on the morning of November 27 with US President George W. Bush, followed by the "main event" in the afternoon during which the statement that Israel and the PA have been working on for months will be read.
Another event in Annapolis is planned the night before, with the participation of all the countries sending representatives to the gathering.
Senior government officials said Saturday night that negotiations themselves would not take place at Annapolis, but rather that the negotiating process would begin "immediately" afterward. No date or venue was given for these negotiations, although they are expected to be carried out by the same teams which have been negotiating the statement to be unveiled at Annapolis.
In the run-up to the meeting, and as a way of winning support for it among the Palestinians, the cabinet is expected on Monday to approve the release of some 450 Palestinian security prisoners.
However, Israel told the US on Saturday that it would not comply with the Palestinians' demand to release 2000 prisoners ahead of the conference.
The cabinet is also expected to discuss Israel's obligations under the road map to freeze all settlement construction and dismantle settlement outposts set up after 2001. Olmert is expected to announce at the meeting in Annapolis that Israel will freeze settlement construction and dismantle the outposts.
In addition, the cabinet - which is meeting Monday rather than Sunday because Olmert will be attending the state memorial ceremony at Sde Boker for David and Paula Ben-Gurion - is also expected to discuss and approve the lifting of some of the roadblocks in the West Bank to make Palestinian movement easier.
Senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office declined to respond to various Palestinian reports that "failure" at Annapolis would lead to Abbas's resignation or could possibly spark another round of terrorist violence.
"The meeting at Annapolis is the beginning of a process," one official said. "It is the first time in seven years that the sides are openly having a dialogue that we hope will lead to a final settlement of some sort. Annapolis is the stepping-off point, and in that sense it is an important landmark, although the event itself is essentially a show of international support for the bilateral track."
The official indicated that the joint statement to be delivered there, which is still being discussed, would likely touch on the "core issues" without preferring any solutions. These include Jerusalem, refugees, the settlements and borders.
Although no timeline is expected to be laid out, Olmert said last week that he would like to see an agreement in place by the time Bush leaves office. Bush's term expires in January 2009.
At the same time, the officials reiterated Israel's position that implementation of the agreement would not take place until achievement of the first stage of the road map, which calls on the Palestinians to "declare an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism and undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere."
The road map also calls for a "rebuilt and refocused Palestinian Authority security apparatus" to begin "sustained, targeted and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure. This includes commencing confiscation of illegal weapons and consolidation of security authority, free of association with terror and corruption."
Israeli officials said that the international community, led by the US, would be the referee deciding when this stage of the road map had been implemented.
Over the weekend Olmert invited Defense Minister Ehud Barak to the Annapolis conference. It is expected that Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will attend along with the prime minister.
In a related development, Meretz MK Yossi Beilin called for a cancellation of the conference, saying at a Shabbat cultural event in Holon that the meeting was doomed to fail, something that would "weaken the Palestinian camp, strengthen Hamas and cause violence."
According to Beilin, it would be better not to hold the meeting at all. "Intensive negotiations can continue on core issues without an empty summit that will only attract Arab ambassadors and not decision-makers alongside an Israeli leadership that prefers [Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor] Lieberman and [Shas head Eli] Yishai over a breakthrough to peace."
The State Department, meanwhile, began logistically preparing for the conference, sending out media accreditation guidelines on Friday, even though the date of the meeting has not yet been set.
"Although the dates and times of the meeting will be announced subsequently, the Department of State's Bureau of Public Affairs will begin the accreditation process now to accommodate the large number of press expected to attend," read the rather unusual announcement. "Further information on the distribution of media credentials and date, location and other details on the meeting will be provided after arrangements are confirmed."
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.
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