Rice aims to wrap up peace deal before end of Bush administration

In joint news conference with US secretary of state, Abbas says he received "encouraging signs" from Israel and the US.

Rice Abbas talk 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Rice Abbas talk 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday assured the Palestinians that she aims to wrap up an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in the remaining year of the Bush administration, offering a target date that falls just short of a formal deadline. The Palestinians had sought such a deadline, arguing that negotiations cannot be open-ended after more than a decade of failed attempts. Israel has rejected the idea, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that he expected "real accomplishments" within Bush's term. In a joint news conference with Rice, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he had received "encouraging signs" from Israel and the US, an apparent reference to the target date. "I agree with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that there is a real possibility to achieve peace, and I say we are serious to use this opportunity to reach this historical peace," Abbas said. PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said, "Everyone wants to do the agreement during President Bush's tenure," and that the specifics would be worked out during the US-hosted Middle East conference, to be held in late November or early December in Annapolis, Maryland. Monday's optimism contrasted with comments made a day earlier, when Israeli and Palestinian officials said the preparations for the summit had run into trouble. The conference is to relaunch peace talks, which broke down in 2001. After her meeting with Abbas on Monday, Rice expressed hope that a peace deal could be reached "within the time remaining for the Bush administration." She said she was "tremendously impressed by the seriousness" Israeli and Palestinian leaders have shown in moving toward renewed peace talks, but gave no specifics. "I'm quite confident that the will is there on both sides that people want to end this conflict," she added. Rice said she was also getting strong signals from Arab states "that they want this process to succeed." The US hopes about a dozen Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, will attend the conference. Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh, meanwhile, said the Palestinian leader won assurances from Rice that all the key issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - that includes borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees - will be dealt with in the post-Annapolis talks. Abu Rdeneh said the US also promised that Israel would meet its short-term obligations under the first stage of the three-stage road map plan. The internationally backed plan - meant to lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state - has been dormant for four years, but is being revived as a way of trying to boost confidence ahead of the Middle East parley. Israel's initial road map obligations include freezing West Bank settlements, dismantling illegal settlement outposts, easing Palestinian movement and redeploying troops in the West Bank. "Rice told Abbas that Olmert has agreed to implement the first phase of the road map," Abu Rdeneh said. For their part, Palestinians must disarm terrorist groups, round up illegal weapons and reform their security services. The Palestinians say they've made progress in meeting these requirements, though Israel says they have a long way to go. A gun battle between operatives and Palestinian police in Nablus Monday gave a reminder of the challenge Abbas faces in reining in terrorists. One person was wounded. Olmert said Sunday that Israel was willing, in principle, to meet its obligations, and suggested that the Palestinians had not really started yet, either. Abbas reiterated Monday that both sides should start immediately and in parallel to carry out their obligations. Palestinian officials said they want Rice to impose a timetable for these steps. Rice met separately Monday with Abbas, PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and the top Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qurei. On Sunday, she held talks with Israeli leaders and, along with Olmert, addressed a Jerusalem conference of leaders, former peace negotiators and scholars. Rice is in the region to check on progress in preparing for the conference. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been trying to write a joint document that would serve as a blueprint for resolving their conflict. Both sides acknowledged publicly on Sunday that they're facing difficulties. In a speech Sunday night, Rice warned that if the conference fails to produce progress toward setting up a Palestinian state, Muslim extremists would increase their influence. "If we do not act now to show the Palestinians a way forward, others will show them a way forward," she said. Rice said both sides must take advantage of the current opportunity. "Palestinians have waited too long for the dignity that will come with an independent state," she said. "We have all waited too long for peace." Meanwhile, Olmert is considering a Palestinian request that he release some 2,000 of the 12,000 Palestinian prisoners Israel holds before the Annapolis summit, officials said Monday. Fayad told The Associated Press in a weekend interview that it was time for Israel to make bold moves to reassure the Palestinian people it is serious about peace negotiations. Freeing 2,000 prisoners ahead of the conference would help to boost trust, Fayad said. Yediot Aharonot reported that Israel would free several prisoners jailed for planning or carrying out attacks on Israelis. In the past, Israel has been reluctant to free such prisoners, but Yediot reported that the inmates in question have already served dozens of years in jail. Government spokesman David Baker said, "Israel received a request to release Palestinian prisoners and is considering it." Israel has released about 340 Palestinian prisoners in recent months.