Olmert Abbas 224.88.
(photo credit: GPO [archive])
With Israel and Palestinian negotiators continuing to have difficulties hammering out a joint statement acceptable to both sides, Israeli officials began talking openly Sunday night of a meeting at Annapolis next Tuesday that would not include a joint statement but rather speeches from both sides and an agreement to begin negotiations.
"The joint statement is not imperative," one senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said. "Annapolis is about starting the process."
Israeli and Palestinian teams, who have been working on the joint statement for weeks, have been stymied in attempts to bridge the gap between an Israeli desire for a general statement and the Palestinian request for one that details the core issues and sets a timeline for reaching a final agreement.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are expected to meet Monday in Jerusalem for the last time before the meeting to try to resolve the issue. The US is expected to issue invitations for the meeting, likely to be held next Tuesday in Annapolis, later in the week.
The cabinet, meanwhile, will hold a final discussion on Annapolis at its meeting Monday, and is expected to approve a release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as a confidence-building measure before the Annapolis gathering. The cabinet is also expected to discuss the contours of the settlement freeze that Olmert is expected to announce at Annapolis.
As difficulties continue to persist just a week before the expected convening of the meeting, both Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Sunday that the fact that the sides were going to meet under the watchful eyes of representatives from around the world already spelled success.
"Annapolis cannot be a failure because its very existence constitutes a success," Olmert said in a meeting with visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. "We are talking about the launching of negotiations that have not been held for seven years, with dozens of countries attending and in front of the entire world. The goal of the Annapolis meeting is to create international support for the bilateral process that will be between us and the Palestinians."
Livni, at a press conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, picked up the same theme, saying that "success is a matter of definition, perception and the determination of both sides, and I think we are both there."
These comments came even as senior diplomatic sources told reporters Sunday that the Palestinians had backtracked on all understandings that were reached on the joint statement. According to these sources, the Palestinians have "returned to square one, to [a point that] preceded the beginning of the negotiations."
The possibility was raised, but shot down by other senior officials, that each side would present a separate statement at Annapolis. "This is very unlikely," the officials said. "What is more likely is that a blasÃ© statement will be issued, following an announcement that intensive bilateral negotiations will begin immediately."
Olmert, during a speech at a memorial service Sunday in Sde Boker for David and Paula Ben-Gurion, seemed to be hinting at the direction he was headed, saying that two of Ben-Gurion's lasting legacies were ensuring that "Jerusalem is the heart of the State of Israel," and his insistence on exhausting "all chances for peace, but to maintain security."
"Sometimes, late at night when the formal obligations of the role of prime minister are over, at that same intermediate time in which agonizing thoughts of what to do and how to act and what to decide pass through my mind, I allow myself - from the distance of time and changed circumstances - to think about David Ben-Gurion's loneliness during those days and hours in which he had to make decisions when faced with the weight of history, against the advice of his good friends and colleagues, when no one stood beside him except his conscience, his sense of responsibility and his God," Olmert said.
Livni, meanwhile, defended Israel's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, saying at her press conference with Kouchner that logic dictates that the goal of a two-state solution was one state for the Jews, and one for the Palestinians.
Asked about reports that United Arab List-Ta'al MK Ahmed Tibi urged Abbas not to give up on this issue, Livni said "the idea of creating a Palestinian state is to give a national answer to the Palestinians, wherever they are. Those who live in the territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, those who live outside of the territories, whether they live in different refugee camps or in Israel, it's the national answer to them. But, of course, any Israeli citizen is an equal rights citizen. Israel is home unto the Jewish people and democracy as well."
Livni said Tibi wanted to hold the stick at both ends. She said that he was placing a major hurdle in the way of finding an end to the conflict "by saying today that, on one hand, they demand a Palestinian state to give an answer to the national aspiration of the Palestinians but simultaneously they are talking in terms of national aspirations inside Israel."
In a related development, Miliband denied a press report last week - based on an e-mail exchange among Prince Charles's aides - that the prince's office rejected an invitation to visit Israel because of concern it would bolster Israel's international image.
"It would be very wrong for everyone in Israel to have the impression that Prince Charles didn't want to come here on the basis of the e-mail exchange among his staff," the foreign secretary said. He said he spoke personally to Prince Charles who made clear that if Israel were "keen to organize a visit" the prince's staff "would be happy to enter into those discussions to find the right time and right place to take this forward."
Also, on a lighter note, Miliband thanked Israel's national football team for defeating Russia and paving the way for England to advance in the Euro Cup.
"We rejoice in the success of Israel yesterday," he said. "We are extremely grateful to the Israeli team in this regard."
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