PM: We Will Enter Talks Without First Step of Road Map

Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to a new plan that skips over the first stage of the road map - eliminating terror and dismantling the settlements - according to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Since the unveiling of the road map in 2002, Israel has been opposed to negotiations on a final-status agreement before the first stage of the road map was implemented. However last week the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams agreed that following the Annapolis summit scheduled for the end of the month, negotiations on a final-status arrangement would begin. The agreement states that if a final-status accord is reached, it would be subject to the implementation of the road map by the parties.

Israel and the Palestinians entered an intensive stage of the negotiations yesterday in a bid to formulate a declaration to be presented at the Annapolis conference. The negotiating teams, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmad Qureia for the Palestinian Authority, met in Jerusalem and are to meet again today. U.S. Secretary of State Condolleezza Rice will decide based on the progress of the parties whether to come to the region again next week.

"I concluded that we can permit ourselves to somewhat change our traditional position," Olmert told the Knesset committee. He added that time was working against the diplomatic process, and so "we will try to reach an understanding on all elements of the solution. But we will not have to implement anything before the fulfillment of the first stage of the road map," he added.

Olmert said there would be a period of time, which he called a "buffer zone," between the agreement and its implementation. "If stage one of the road map is implemented - if the Palestinians dismantle terror infrastructure - then and only then will Israel have to implement the agreement."

Olmert and Prime Minister Tzipi Livni appears at different Knesset forums yesterday, and explained that the Annapolis summit would last for one day.

Livni revealed to the Kadima faction that Israel had pressed the Palestinians into committing the agreement to writing.

Government sources in Jerusalem said the summit would take begin November 26 with meetings of the foreign ministers in Annapolis. That evening President George W. Bush will host Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for a dinner at the White House. The next day, Olmert and Abbas will speak at the formal opening of the conference, which would last a few hours.

According to Olmert, "the starting point of the negotiations will be the recognition that Israel is the state of the Jewish people."

"I have no doubt that Abu Mazen and and [PA Prime Minister] Salam Fayad are obligated to agreements and want to make peace with Israel as a Jewish state, and I have good reason to say this," Olmert also said.

The end point of the talks, Olmert said, would be the declaration of the end of the conflict and demands.

Olmert plans to bring the agreement reached at the end of the negotiations to the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. and the Quartet, to ensure the widest possible international support.

Olmert also told the Knesset committee that the U.S. has not prohibited Israel from conducting talks with Syria, but rather is asking in another way that Israel avoid such talks.

"A formula can be found for Syria to participate in the conference," Olmert told the committee. "I believe that the Annapolis summit could, under certain conditions, bring about a renewal of talks with Syria when the time comes, and that is of value for Israel."

Last week Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a meeting of the Saban Forum of economic, political and academic leaders from the U.S. and Israel that he supported renewing talks with Syria. He said another round of conflict might break out between Israel and Syria, in which case "we would have to look our soldiers in the eyes and tell them we had done everything we could to obtain an agreement.

Mazal Mualem adds:

Barak told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week that based on recent intelligence, Syria might be seeking to remove itself from "the axis of evil," and this might constitute an opportunity to renew talks between Syria and Israel. Barak's associates said promoting the Syrian channel did not contradict the channel of talks with the Palestinians.