Olmert Saban forum 224.8.
(photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert talked for the first time on Sunday about the possibility of achieving significant steps toward peace with the Palestinians before US President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Addressing the Saban Forum in Jerusalem, Olmert said rigorous and ongoing negotiations would commence immediately after the Annapolis gathering, and that all issues would be on the table.
"If we and the Palestinians act with determination, there is a chance that we can achieve real accomplishments during the Bush presidency," the prime minister said. "There is no intention of dragging the negotiations on endlessly."
He added that the upcoming US-sponsored conference would not be a forum for negotiations, but a starting point for the real effort to realize the two-state vision.
Olmert reiterated that the road map peace plan would be the basis for any solution, but noted that both sides had commitments that had yet to be fulfilled.
"We should remember that the road map calls on Israel to take a series of actions. These also haven't been carried out. We won't ease up on the Palestinians to carry out their obligations, and we won't dodge ours. This is an opportunity, and it must be seized," he said.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that if the current US-backed peace drive failed, the "moderate center" could collapse forever.
"Because of the threat of violent extremism, the two-state solution is frankly more urgent now than ever," she said. "If we do not act now to show the Palestinians a way forward, others will show them a way forward. If the Palestinians are losing hope, especially among the young, we have a great danger before us."
Rice spoke of a real chance for peace offered by the Annapolis conference. She called for a serious and substantive gathering.
"We can succeed. Failure is simply not an option," she said.
Quartet envoy Tony Blair, meanwhile, said the contours of a peace agreement were more or less in place, and that what was needed now was a change in the mind-set of both Israelis and Palestinians.
"It's time for everyone to get real. Israel must push vigorously for the conditions for a Palestinian state to happen," Blair said. "The Palestinians must accept the responsibility of statehood, particularly on security. Intentions will not suffice; only actions will," Blair said.
Speaking ahead of her meeting with Rice on Sunday, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made it clear that security for Israelis must precede the creation of a Palestinian state.
"They [the Palestinians] need to understand that the implementation of future understandings would be carried out only according to the phases of the road map - the meaning is security for Israel first and then the establishment of a Palestinian state," Livni said. She added that "no one wants to see the creation of another terror state in the region."
The foreign minister, who also heads the Israeli team negotiating with the Palestinians on a joint declaration of principles to be presented to the Annapolis conference, conceded publicly for the first time that there were "problems" in the negotiations.
"There is no tension in the meetings - there is a good atmosphere, in fact - but yes, there are problems," Livni said, without elaborating.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Rice that if last week's deployment of 300 Palestinian Authority police in Nablus turned out to be successful, Israel would permit another, unnamed West Bank town to follow suit.
However, the defense minister stressed that overall security responsibility would remain in Israel's hands, and the IDF would maintain its freedom to maneuver.
Barak, who will meet later this week with PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, assured Rice that Israeli actions vis-Ã¡-vis Gaza would not result in a humanitarian crisis for the residents of the Strip.
Minister-without-Portfolio Ami Ayalon told Rice that the Annapolis conference should be seen in the wider regional context, where Iran is the main threat to the Middle East.
Rice said little about her agenda for two days of closed-door sessions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Her current trip is her eighth to Israel this year.
On Monday, she has meetings scheduled with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Fayad and chief PA negotiator Ahmed Qurei.
Qurei warned that time was running out, saying the two sides hadn't even begun discussing the core issues.
"We are still at the beginning, and time is short," he said.
"We are in a race [against] time" to produce a document that can be the basis for negotiations, Abbas said Sunday.
AP contributed to this report.