Negotiations on Final Status to Get Underway in 2 Weeks

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Israel and the Palestinians will begin final-status negotiations on December 12, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas announced yesterday in a joint statement read out by U.S. President George W. Bush at the Annapolis conference.

Speaking to reporters after the conference, Bush acknowledged that he was worried about the consequences if peace talks failed, but said: "It is worth it to try."

"I don't think it's a risk to try for peace," he said. "I think it's an obligation."

In a meeting with Olmert and Abbas before the conference, Bush said that the U.S. would not impose a solution on the parties, but would assist them.

In the joint statement, which was finalized only a few minutes before the conference, Olmert and Abbas promised to try to conclude the final-status agreement by the end of 2008. However, implementation of the agreement will be conditional on fulfillment of each side's obligations under the road map peace plan.

Both sides agreed that Washington will determine whether those obligations have been fulfilled. Bush has chosen General Jim Jones, a former commander of both NATO and the American forces in Europe, to serve as the arbiter, and Jones is due to arrive in the region in the coming days.

The first stage of the road map requires the Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and Israel to freeze settlement construction and dismantle illegal outposts.

In his speech to the conference, Bush stressed the importance of establishing a Palestinian state and said that the timing is right because both leaders, Olmert and Abbas, truly want peace. In addition, he said, a battle is currently being waged over the future of the Middle East, "and when liberty takes root" in the West Bank and Gaza, this will "have an impact far beyond the Holy Land."

Bush also stressed that Palestine will be "a Palestinian homeland, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people." Later in the speech, he returned to this theme, saying that the U.S. was committed "to the security of Israel as a Jewish state and homeland for the Jewish people." A source in Olmert's entourage expressed great satisfaction with these statements, as well as the fact that Bush offered no proposals of his own on how to solve core issues of the conflict such as Jerusalem, borders and the refugees.

Bush did not mention Syria in his speech, but did address a few sentences to the need to strengthen democracy in Lebanon and the importance of that country's presidential elections taking place with no outside interference.

Abbas, who gave the longest and most detailed speech, stressed that the current moment was an opportunity "that might not be repeated." He praised Olmert's desire for peace and predicted that the Annapolis conference would prove a turning point in the history of the Middle East. He also noted repeatedly that the world will be watching the subsequent Israeli-Palestinian talks, and ended by urging his people not to lose hope.

Addressing Gaza residents in particular, he promised that "the hours of darkness will end," and Gaza and the West Bank will once more be united. Israeli officials expressed satisfaction with this statement, as Olmert has said in the past that any agreement will require Abbas to assume responsibility for Gaza as well.

Addressing the Israeli people, Abbas said: "Peace is not impossible, I extend a hand to you as an equal to equals."

Olmert, who was the last speaker, said that he came "despite the fears and the doubts and the hesitations, to say to you, President Abbas, and through you to your people and to the entire Arab world: The time has come. Neither we nor you have any more time to sink in dreams disconnected from the suffering of our people." He expressed sympathy for the Palestinians' suffering, and said that the refugees - though he did not use that word - could build a better future "in the Palestinian state that will be established on the territory agreed among us." He also promised that Israel would participate in international efforts to resolve this problem.

But while Olmert spoke of "two nation-states for two peoples," Abbas cited UN Resolution 194, which the Palestinians interpret as recognizing the refugees' "right of return" to Israel.

Olmert also mentioned Bush's letter to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, which recognized the settlement blocs.

Finally, he urged the Arab states to "end the boycott the alienation and the disregard" and praised the Arab peace initiative: "I admire this initiative, respect its importance and greatly esteem its contribution."

At the end of Olmert's speech, all the Arab delegates present applauded him, with the exception of Syria's deputy foreign minister. According to members of Olmert's entourage, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal initially hesitated, but after a moment, he too joined in the applause.

After their speeches, the three leaders left the hall and the conference continued at the foreign minister level, chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed a follow-up conference in Moscow in the spring of 2008. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa supported this idea, and said that negotiations should be expanded to include Syria and Lebanon as well.

The Saudi foreign minister also urged that negotiations begin on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, adding that much is riding on the success of the Annapolis initiative. He urged Israel to freeze construction of the settlements and the "wall" (i.e. the separation fence), free prisoners and evacuate outposts.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni urged the Arab states to "get off the fence" and understand that normalization is not a prize for Israel. She proposed normalization in stages.

Addressing the Palestinians, she urged them to stop mourning Israel's establishment and instead build a state of their own.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak urged the Palestinians to "say goodbye to violence" and promised to do whatever he could to help the negotiations succeed.