Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hopes to reach an agreement on all the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a year, the premier said in conversations with both Israeli officials and foreign diplomats over the last few days.
Senior government officials said this time frame stemmed from the political timetable in the United States, where presidential elections will mark the end of U.S. President George W. Bush's time in the White House in November 2008.
In conversations with Israeli officials, Olmert cited two reasons for wanting to reach an agreement with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office.
One is Bush's April 2004 letter to former prime minister Ariel Sharon in which he expressed support for Israel's retention of the major settlement blocs. The second is the Bush-sponsored road map peace plan, which requires the PA to dismantle the terrorist organizations before a Palestinian state can be established.
"We'll never have a more comfortable administration," one associate quoted Olmert as saying. "And the next administration will not be committed to these principles to the same degree."
Moreover, the associate said, Olmert does not believe that a new president will have the time and energy at the outset to invest in Israeli-Palestinian talks.
But despite his desire to reach an agreement within a year, Olmert opposes a rigid timetable for implementation - something on which the Palestinians insist. Recently, Palestinian officials said implementation should be completed no more than six months after a deal is signed. Olmert, however, believes that implementation must be conditioned on Palestinian action against the terrorist organizations.
Olmert's associates claim that Abbas agrees with the prime minister on this, but that Ahmed Qureia, who heads the Palestinian negotiating team, is insisting on dropping the road map sequencing. Partly as a result, they said, talks between the Israeli and Palestinian teams have gone nowhere, and the two sides are no closer to formulating a joint declaration for the upcoming Annapolis summit than when they started.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the Israeli team, has met twice with Qureia in the last two days, but without result.
Israeli officials accused Qureia of systematically ignoring all the understandings Olmert and Abbas had previously reached, and instead demanding that the declaration include both substantive agreements on the core issues and a detailed timetable for their implementation. Qureia is conducting an "independent and nonconstructive policy," charged one.
Nevertheless, Livni and her aides denied that there is a crisis, saying they are encouraged because the Palestinians are still coming to meetings.
Olmert's associates said the premier has concluded that he and Abbas will have to be much more involved than he had expected in order to produce a joint declaration for Annapolis. He would prefer that the U.S. not present its own proposal, and he realizes if the parties do not seem to be progressing on their own, U.S. involvement will become increasingly likely.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will begin another round of talks in the region on Sunday, and "she's simply going to park here until the conference to ensure that things happen and to help formulate the declaration," said one Israeli official.
Associates said that Olmert is pleased with the progress of his talks with Abbas, but worried by the lack of progress on the ground. "So far, the Palestinians haven't done anything," one associate quoted him as saying.
Nevertheless, he believes that Abbas, despite his weakness, is the last chance to prevent a Hamas takeover.
According to his aides, Olmert's main hope for Annapolis is that it will mobilize Arab countries behind his talks with Abbas. To end the conflict, he told associates, it is essential that Arab countries both back Abbas in making the necessary concessions and stop aiding Hamas.
Ora Coren adds:
Speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv Thursday, Olmert said he hoped that Annapolis would "create a suitable atmosphere for continuing bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians. I promise that for our part, we will make every effort.
"For the first time, there's a Palestinian government that says it's willing to make peace with us, and I'm not willing to miss this opportunity," he said.
The premier acknowledged that final-status talks will be difficult, "but I'm convinced that at the end of the day we'll be able to reach an agreement. Then we'll need to implement it according to the road map, cautiously ... in order not to lose control of this delicate process, and to progress step by step to full implementation."
The first order of business, he declared, is to stop the rocket fire from Gaza. "No country in the world would tolerate this, and Israel also won't tolerate continued rocket fire on a daily basis. The Palestinians will have to deal with this with courage and determination," he said.
"At the same time, we want to continue the negotiations, with no excuses."
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