Bush extends wishes to departing PM

US vows to keep advancing peace talks; meeting of Israeli, PA, US officials goes ahead as planned.

bush olmert 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
bush olmert 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A three-way meeting of top Israeli, Palestinian and American officials here Wednesday aimed at furthering peace negotiations suffered a major setback just minutes after it was scheduled to begin. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's surprise announcement that he would be ending his tenure in September plunged the troubled talks into new uncertainty, as the process lost its leading Israeli patron to domestic political turmoil that will make it difficult for the country to take major steps toward an agreement. Still, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went ahead with the trilateral meeting as scheduled, according to the State Department, meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei to address the progress and obstacles in reaching an agreement. US President George W. Bush also indicated he would continue to work with Olmert until he leaves office. In a phone conversation, Bush extended his warm wishes to Olmert just before the prime minister announced he would be resigning, according to spokesman Gordon Johndroe. Johndroe said Bush appreciated Olmert's friendship, leadership and work for peace, and intended to work closely with Olmert while he was still the leader of Israel. "The Israelis will work out their inner politics. We're going to continue working on the basis on which we've worked," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack as the news of Olmert's announcement broke. "We're going to keep moving forward." Before that, he had stressed America's ongoing desire to stick to the deadline of a deal by the end of 2008, set by the US-brokered Middle East conference in Annapolis last November. "Our goal is to try to get to an agreement that will lead to a two-state solution by the end of this year," he said. "We have been assured that the commitment of the Israeli government, from the top down to the negotiating ranks, remains the same, that everybody is committed to the same goals that they stated in Annapolis." But reaching that goal looks increasingly unlikely. Even ahead of Wednesday's meetings, which also featured a one-on-one between Rice and Livni, both Israelis and Palestinians had suggested it wouldn't be possible to come to an agreement any time soon. Olmert had particularly highlighted the problem of Jerusalem, though gaps still remain on the other final-status issues of refugees, security and borders. Still, the teams indicated some progress had been made, particularly on the last issue. Now, with Olmert due to leave office, "it could be the final nail in the coffin," according to David Makovsky, who heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Project on the Middle East Peace Process. He pointed out that the Americans had invested in Olmert and were counting on his support for making the necessary compromises with the Palestinians. He also noted that Livni would be countering a challenge from the Right in the form of Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz in her efforts to win the September primary of the Kadima party - largely composed of former Likudniks - now that Olmert won't be running. "The worst thing for her politically is to be seen as making concessions toward the Palestinians" outside of a comprehensive agreement, according to Makovsky. That would complicate American efforts to put together even a preliminary document of the contours of an agreement. Livni, for her part, canceled a planned statement to the media at the State Department following news that Olmert would be addressing his political future. Livni's statement, itself put on the schedule at the last minute, was the only media event due to take place in connection with the trilateral meeting, which otherwise wasn't scheduled to feature so much as a photo op. The low-key event approach seemed to reflect low expectations for the meeting. "If the preliminary reports are correct about how they are going to present the event, it seems they want something that is low-profile," Makovsky said. "It's safe to assume that if they had something more dramatic and harmonious to announce, they would be trumpeting it." That development might have a silver lining, according to Aaron David Miller, who advised several US secretaries of state on Middle East policy. He noted his long-held skepticism that the Bush administration would be able to help craft an agreement by the time it left office, and with Olmert's resignation, "this is going to make it more unlikely." He described that situation as "making a virtue out of necessity because it will preclude any dramatic and fundamentally flawed efforts at overreach." That, he warned, could lead to disaster when the goal should be to hand an on-track process over to the next administration. Now that Olmert is going, he said, "it makes everyone stop, smell the coffee and look at the reality." The Associated Press contributed to this report.