Bush: Tough compromises must be made

Olmert: PA must control Gaza before getting state; talks on joint declaration continue into the night.

bush olmert pre-annap 22 (photo credit: AP)
bush olmert pre-annap 22
(photo credit: AP)
At an evening dinner at the State Department for members of some 50 delegations invited to the Annapolis peace conference, President George W. Bush toasted the effort and told the guests: "We've come together this week because we share a common goal: two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security. Achieving this goal requires difficult compromises, and the Israelis and Palestinians have elected leaders committed to making them." At the dinner, with its menu of red and yellow beet salad and sea bass carefully selected to meet kosher and Muslim dietary guidelines, host Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, sat between Olmert and Abbas. Bush stopped by briefly to share a toast with the participants, and clinked glasses with Abbas and Olmert. They raised their iced tea; for Bush, it was water. No alcohol was served out of respect for Muslim tradition. Olmert said that international support - from Bush and also, presumably, from the Arab nations that will attend the conference - could make the effort succeed where others have failed. "This time, it's different because we are going to have a lot of participation in what I hope will launch a serious process negotiation between us and the Palestinians," Olmert said. He was referring to the talks expected to begin in earnest after this week's US-hosted meetings. "We and the Palestinians will sit together in Jerusalem and work out something that will be very good," Olmert said. As to the timing, he added later: "We definitely will have to sit down very soon." The agreement that was shaping up, as Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo described it, is a starting point for negotiations and sketches only vague bargaining terms. The big questions that have doomed previous peace efforts would come later. The document was to include a formal announcement of the renewal of peace talks, Abed Rabbo said. It will set a target of concluding negotiations before Bush leaves office in January 2009. And it commits the two sides to resolving the key issues that divide them. Chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei said after an afternoon meeting with Rice, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and others that details of the document had not been finalized. "Our efforts are still going on to reach this document," he said. A member of the Palestinian delegation, speaking on condition on anonymity because talks are still going on, said three main obstacles have emerged: -All sides have agreed that two states should be established, but the Palestinians have objected to referring to Israel as a "Jewish state." The Palestinians and their Arab backers are concerned that a specific reference to a Jewish state would prejudice the right of Palestinians who claim a right to return to land they once owned inside Israel. -American and Israeli officials are resisting Palestinian efforts to include language about "ending the occupation that started in 1967." -The Palestinians want the document to set a one-year timetable for reaching a resolution. The Israelis do not want this, and the Americans are open the idea. Some in Bush's administration doubt that a settlement is possible in such a short time frame and have reservations about whether the Palestinians, in particular, are ready to make necessary concessions. Bush's tempered outlook as he readied the Annapolis conference suggested he has his own misgivings, although administration spokesmen said the United States will remain closely involved after Tuesday's session closes. Olmert emerged from his meeting with US President George W. Bush Monday saying it was "completely clear" that implementation of any agreement with the Palestinians is conditional on fulfillment of their road map security requirements everywhere, including in the Gaza Strip. "We make no distinction between Judea and Samaria and Gaza," Olmert told reporters at a briefing after the meeting. He said it was patently inconceivable for Israel to accept a situation where there would be a Palestinian state that included one part - the West Bank - where the PA was in control, and another - Gaza - from which terrorism would emanate. "The road map must be applied to all the territories," he said. Olmert did not say how he envisioned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas regaining control of Gaza. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, while not addressing the details of Olmert's comments directly, said the Palestinians needed to deal with the situation in Gaza. "There will only be one Palestinian state, and it's going to be difficult work. It's going to take some time for the Palestinians to work through the situation with Hamas right now. They're under obligation to do that," she said at a briefing following the Abbas-Bush bilateral meeting at the White House Monday afternoon, which took place after the earlier Bush-Olmert meeting. State Department sources said, however, that there was a distinction between any final-status agreement and the reality faced by both parties today, and that it was still possible for steps to be taken now. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post following the White House meeting, acknowledged that the PA had to resolve the situation in Gaza. "Gaza is a big problem for us," he said. "We know that a Palestinian state cannot be created [with] Gaza being separate from the West Bank, east Jerusalem. A single territorial agreement, that's the way that a Palestinian state will be established." Any such agreement would be brought to a referendum, which would marginalize Hamas, Erekat added. But he stressed that Israel's obligations under the first phase of the road map, including freezing settlements, had yet to happen. Erekat called the meeting with Bush "very good" and praised the president for encouraging the two sides to work toward peace. "The world is here for us… but decisions have to be taken by both Israelis and Palestinians," he said. Bush, in his meeting, told the parties, "History is full of missed opportunities because people have just looked to the downsides," and encouraged each one to take advantage of this opening for peace. Ahead of his meeting with Abbas, Bush stressed that "the United States cannot impose our vision, but we can help facilitate." Olmert, accompanied by Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, met with Bush for an hour at the White House on Monday in preparation for Tuesday's summit. Briefing reporters earlier in the day, Olmert downplayed the importance of the differences that have made negotiations over the statement so difficult, saying they were largely of a "tactical" nature. The three leaders are scheduled to meet together in Annapolis Tuesday morning, where they will each deliver a speech. Sources close to the prime minister are saying that the speech will "not be motherhood and apple pie," but will likely be detailed and include "elements that Israelis have not heard before." Bush, according to these sources, is also likely to deliver a speech that "will include more detail than we'd like to hear." The sources said that it was likely that Bush would include certain elements in the speech meant to satisfy both the Saudis and the Syrians, and which were possibly made as a condition for their attendance at the conference. Bush aides characterized the speech, as well as the bilateral meetings Monday, as intended to "encourage" both sides toward a fulfillment of his vision of a two-state solution. During a photo opportunity before the hour-long meeting with Bush, half of which was a tête-à-tête, Olmert said the Annapolis conference was "different" because of the massive participation of representatives from around the world, including more than 20 Arab and Muslim countries. The message was echoed by the Bush administration, which particularly welcomed the participation of Saudi Arabia and Syria, two key Arab countries whose presence had been in doubt until the last few days. "This time it's different, because we are going to have lots of participants in what I hope will launch a serious process of negotiations between us and the Palestinians," Olmert said. "This will be a bilateral process, but the international support is very important for us." During his meeting with reporters, Olmert continued to play down expectations, saying success of the summit was the very fact that it was taking place. "The intention is that we will succeed in starting a process that will make bilateral negotiations possible," he said. Olmert said that "much patience is needed" and that it would likely take a long time after the agreement was reached until it could be implemented. "We are not talking about implementation in the near future, it is dependent on fulfilling the road map requirements," he said. "We need a great deal of patience." Bush, Olmert said, believed that showing what the Palestinians could gain if they fulfilled their security obligations could strengthen those players interested in an agreement. Saying that the process entails "many gambles," Olmert said negotiations had to begin somewhere. Banging his hand on the table for emphasis, he said, "We want to move forward. We don't want the status quo, we want to change the status quo." Olmert said even with the negotiating process, Israel would continue to operate militarily in the Gaza Strip when it deemed necessary, and he did not need Abbas's "permission" to do so. "If we need to take action we will do so," he said. "For our security we don't need permission to act from anyone." Olmert also stressed that while Syria would be participating in the conference, "the central issue will be the Palestinians." He said Israel was in favor, and even encouraged, Syrian participation, and did not rule out future negotiations with the Syrians, "when conditions ripen." When asked whether he would agree to a withdrawal from the Golan in return for peace with Syria, he said it was much too early to discuss this, but pointed out that former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Binyamin Netanyahu and Barak were all willing to make a significant withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Olmert did not provide any details regarding the mechanics of how the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would progress after the meeting. He did, however, say that it was much too early to talk about a follow-up international conference, like one the Russians are promoting in Moscow in January where the Golan Heights and the status of the Sheba farms would be higher up on the agenda. Rather, Olmert said, the most important international gathering after Annapolis would be the donors meeting in Paris in mid-December, where the international community would be asked to contribute financially to strengthen Palestinian security and governing institutions. Regarding the position taken by a number of US organizations rejecting the government's right to discuss the status of Jerusalem, Olmert replied that Israel was a sovereign state that could decide every issue for itself.