bush olmert abbas wave.
(photo credit: AP)
Five days after pledging in Annapolis to try to wrap up an agreement with the Palestinians by the end of 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the cabinet on Sunday that there was no Israeli commitment to any timetable.
"An effort will be made to hold accelerated negotiations in the hope that it will be possible to conclude them in 2008," Olmert said at the weekly meeting. "However, there is no commitment to a specific timetable regarding these negotiations."
Both Livni and Olmert said that from Israel's point of view, the most important aspect of the understanding was that any future agreement would only be implemented after the Palestinians fulfilled their security requirements under the road map.
"Israel will not have to carry out any commitment stemming from the agreement before all of the road map commitments are met," Olmert told the cabinet.
Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, however, said that this did not go far enough. Dichter, who was among the ministers who voted in favor of the agreement (only the four Shas ministers voted against), said that not only should Israel not implement the agreement until the road map requirements were met, but that it should also not begin negotiating on the "core issues" until the Palestinians demonstrated an ability to carry out their requirements.
Dichter said that the timetable for negotiations needed to be long enough to determine whether the Palestinians would implement their road map requirements, and that this would necessitate their developing a genuine judicial system, building jails and strengthening their security services.
Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman absented himself from the vote endorsing the joint understanding. He received a private briefing from Olmert before Sunday's cabinet meeting, during which he registered his opposition.
A source close to Lieberman said that his position on Annapolis could be summed up by what he said last week: "Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] represents the Palestinians like I represent the Norwegians. His chances of controlling Gaza - as is demanded at Annapolis - are very weak."
Shas leader Eli Yishai told reporters that the Annapolis meeting was "unnecessary." He said that there was no reason to negotiate at a time when the Palestinian side did not recognize Israel as a Jewish state and was not stopping the Kassams or terrorist attacks.
Livni, who headed the Israeli negotiating team that worked out the joint understandings, waged a defense of the understandings in the cabinet meeting, saying that what was left out of the document was as important as what went in it.
She said the document did not "tie Israel's hands" by making reference to other initiatives such as the Arab League initiative, which includes elements that are "problematic to Israel." Likewise, she said the document did not bind Israel to a timeline.
"We want to negotiate... the start of negotiations is in our interest, and we want to finish it as quickly as possible," she said. "But we did not commit ourselves to a timetable that would bring with it indirect international pressure on Israel."
Livni said Israel had also managed to fend off international intervention, and that the understandings emphasized that the negotiations would be bilateral.
"It was important to create a distinction, whereby the track will now be bilateral, without any direct intervention from the international community," she said.
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