Negotiators battle to win agreement ahead of the international meeting
US SECRETARY of State Condoleezza Rice is due to arrive in Israel this weekend. It will be her seventh visit to the region this year — and her latest attempt to prod Israel and the Palestinians ahead of the Annapolis conference, in Maryland.
No final date has yet been set for the Washington-sponsored summit later this month and no invitations have been sent, although Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams are working “intensively” to prepare a statement, according to a senior Israeli official.
But all those involved have been at pains to play down any hopes of progress.
“It’s clear that Annapolis won’t solve all the problems of the Middle East and we have to be realistic as to what can be achieved,” the Israeli official told the JC.
In Washington, a senior State Department official also tried to set expectations at a reasonable level. “We’re hopeful, we’re optimistic, and we’re determined,” he said, while repeatedly stressing that the goal was only “trying to support” Israelis and Palestinians towards an agreement.
Washington wants both sides to agree on a substantive document which will deal with the conflict’s core issues, mainly borders, Jerusalem and refugees. Israel aims to provide a “focused discussion on the final horizon” of a peace agreement based on the joint declaration. That declaration could then be endorsed by the international community and, most importantly, by the moderate Arab states.
Much depends on the Arab countries who actually show up. If Saudi Arabia attends, and begins playing a supportive role, the Bush administration will be able to celebrate a major foreign-policy achievement.
Yet agreeing terms for the joint declaration is proving difficult. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said that both sides “have to find the widest possible common ground”, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has so far insisted that the declaration “must include the six major issues that are Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements, water and security”. He also insisted that Israel return all land captured in 1967.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s right-wing coalition partners, mean- while, have threatened to quit the government if any compromise is made on Jerusalem or the refugee issue.
Israel also insists there will be no timeline for the implementation of final-status issues, while chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei said on Tuesday there would be no talks with Israel unless a deadline was set for establishing a Palestinian state.
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy with the most hands-on experience in brokering negotiations, argued last week that Ms Rice is not doing enough to get the parties closer and that, if she wants shuttle diplomacy, “she actually has to shuttle”. Former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer said the administration will be making a mistake if it agrees to convene a summit dealing only with interim measures. “Our goal should be the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said, stressing that achieving it might need more preparation.
Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas are already meeting regularly