Palestinians ease pre-summit demands

Officials pleased with Israeli pledges to resume peace talks after the conference.

Olmert Abbas 224.88 (photo credit: GPO [archive])
Olmert Abbas 224.88
(photo credit: GPO [archive])
Encouraged by a conciliatory speech by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian negotiators have eased their demands that an upcoming US-hosted peace conference lay out a plan for statehood, officials said Thursday, fueling new optimism among the summit's participants. The Palestinians said they were pleased with Israeli pledges to resume peace talks after this month's conference - and were now less concerned about a pre-summit understanding that had bogged down earlier negotiations. Speaking in Tel Aviv late Thursday, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki indicated how far the Palestinians have retreated from their original demand of concrete statements on all the "core issues," like borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, in the pre-conference document. Malki said the framework is made up of previous peace initiatives. "The second component of the document is the core issues," he said, "and here of course we have to find exactly what are these core issues, at least if we can mention them by name." Playing down the conference, set for Annapolis, Maryland, Malki said, "We should not spend that much effort on Annapolis itself, but on the day after Annapolis." That mirrors Israel's stand, that the conference would only mark the resumption of peace talks. In a speech Sunday night, Olmert declared "now is the time" to sign a deal. The following day Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he had received "encouraging signs" from Israel. Standing next to Abbas, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was "tremendously impressed by the seriousness" of both sides. Speaking at the same Tel Aviv University forum as Malki, Minister Ami Ayalon said the goal is "to reach agreement on the principles of a final peace deal" during the next year, while US President George W. Bush is in office. The sudden shift in tone contrasts sharply with disagreements that have plagued the summit preparations for weeks. Those differences focused on a joint document the sides hoped to present at the conference. The Palestinians had insisted the document outline the general principles of a future peace agreement and provide a timeline for granting them independence. The Israelis sought a vaguer, nonbinding agreement. With negotiators making little progress on these issues, Palestinian officials said they were turning their focus away from the document and toward post-summit talks after receiving Israeli and US assurances that peace efforts will move into high gear after the conference. The meeting is expected to take place around Nov. 26 in Annapolis, Maryland. "We were hoping for a document that would define the limits and guiding resolution for every difficult point," said Rafiq Husseini, a top aide to Palestinian Abbas. "I'm not sure we'll get it." He said he was pleased that there is now talk of reviving the "road map" - a long-stalled US peace plan that envisions a Palestinian state. In addition to working out issues of statehood, the Annapolis conference is also meant to strengthen Abbas in his standoff with Hamas, which violently seized control of the Gaza Strip last June. That takeover has paradoxically led to renewed peacemaking between Israel and Abbas's government in the West Bank - but it has also raised serious questions about Abbas's ability to implement any future deal. Palestinian officials said Abbas was especially encouraged by Olmert's speech Sunday night, during which the Israeli leader suggested that a deal could be reached by the end of the Bush administration in January 2009. Olmert described the Annapolis summit as a "starting point" for talks on Palestinian statehood, including the so-called core issues that have scuttled past peace efforts: the final borders between Israel and a future Palestine, the status of disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. Olmert also said he is ready to carry out Israel's initial obligations under the road map - a freeze in Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank - and said he expected the Palestinians to meet their road map commitment of disarming militants. Israeli officials declined to discuss the status of pre-summit negotiations but said Olmert is serious about using the conference as a launching pad. "Annapolis is not about implementation. It's about defining the issues, showing how we go forward without giving the solutions right now," said Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin. A US diplomat said Washington is encouraged by the latest Palestinian position, which appears to jibe with Israeli and American thinking. "We've never envisioned Annapolis as a meeting that hammers out core issues, but rather sets the stage for parties to work on the core issues in an atmosphere of confidence," said the diplomat, who asked that his name not be used in accordance with state department policy. An official date for the conference, and formal invitations, are expected to be announced within the next 10 days.