New hope, old wariness

Times Staff Writer

Israeli and Palestinian leaders formally agreed at an international conference Tuesday to launch their first set of peace negotiations in seven years, but failed in tortuous private discussions to resolve key questions over the content and structure of the talks.

As a result, a day that began with handshakes and hopes for peace ended with undispelled doubts over the prospect for success of the renewed effort to end decades of strife in the Middle East.

Palestinian and Israeli representatives each said they were satisfied with the outcome of the conference, but there were clear indications that the Israelis came away with a greater share of what they were seeking. Both the Bush administration’s approach to talks and a joint declaration negotiated by the Israelis and Palestinians leaned toward Israeli positions.


Among world dignitaries assembled for the conference, some urged a more active U.S. role while Arab countries demanded greater flexibility by Israel. Saudi representatives called for a broader peace process for the region to settle long-standing differences between Israel and its neighbors.

President Bush opened the conference at the U.S. Naval Academy by reading aloud a declaration that was completed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas only minutes before the conference began.

In the statement, called a “joint understanding,” Israelis and Palestinians pledged to begin negotiations next month, with a goal of creating a Palestinian state before the end of Bush’s term.

“We agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception,” said the declaration, which Bush read with Olmert and Abbas standing at his side.

The conference, attended by more than 50 countries and world organizations, was convened to provide the blessing of world powers -- including key Arab nations -- for renewal of a peace effort that had remained nearly moribund since President Clinton failed to help complete a settlement at the end of his presidency.

Protests back home

Leading up to the gathering, thousands of Jewish settlers protested in Jerusalem while Palestinian supporters of the militant Hamas movement staged rallies in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. One Palestinian protester was shot and killed in the West Bank town of Hebron as Palestinian riot police tried to break up demonstrations.

Olmert and Abbas, who spoke to the international gathering after Bush and will meet the president again today at the White House, each pledged to sacrifice in the interests of peace.

“We are willing to make painful compromise, rife with risks, in order to realize these aspirations,” Olmert said, adding that Israel also wants peace with Syria and other Arab states.

“Neither we nor you must beg for peace from the other,” Abbas said. “It is a joint interest for us and you.”

Despite statements of mutual support, the vague wording of the joint declaration signaled that the Israelis had emerged from the conference with more of what they wanted than the Palestinians. It also underscored the wide chasm separating the two sides as they begin trying to reach a deal.

The Olmert government, worried about critics on its right, appeared successful in its effort to begin negotiations without yielding on anything ahead of time. Abbas’ team, by contrast, had sought some sort of Israeli concessions up front to show his public that his alliance with the West is producing benefits in the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

While Olmert is politically weak, Abbas and his Fatah movement don’t even control all the Palestinian territories. The Gaza Strip has been run by Hamas since a militant takeover in June.

The joint declaration sets a date, Dec. 12, for beginning talks, but sets no deadline for completing a peace deal, as the Palestinians wanted. It specifies only that the two sides will “make every effort” to reach a deal by the end of 2008.

The declaration leaves key aspects of the American role undefined, even though the Palestinians and many Arab and European nations have pushed for the United States to act as a broker and press the two sides to compromise as has been the case in past administrations. The document calls for Olmert and Abbas to have weekly bilateral meetings.

The document makes clear that the U.S. will not be part of the “steering committee” that will launch the talks at next month’s session. The committee, charged with organizing the negotiations, is to meet on a regular basis.

U.S. officials will monitor whether the two sides have complied with their obligations on interim issues, such as fighting terrorism and halting Israeli settlement growth. But the joint understanding does not spell out whether Washington can take an active role in trying to bring about compliance.

The declaration also leaves unaddressed the substance of the core issues dividing the two sides, including borders, refugees, Jerusalem and long-term plans for the Israeli settlements. Nor does it say anything about what the Palestinian state that would emerge from a deal would look like.

That marks a retreat from goals adopted earlier this year. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has sought to arrange new peace talks with a stated goal of describing the contours of that state, in part to motivate ordinary Palestinians to lend the effort their support.

The declaration makes no reference to an Arab peace initiative, revived by the Saudis this year, which tends to favor the Palestinians on the issue of territorial control, and which the Palestinians would like to use as a benchmark for the negotiations.

But it also says nothing about the Israeli desire to officially designate Israel as a land for the Jewish people, a formulation that would limit the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their old homes.

The Israelis were pleased with the support they have received from Bush, who emphasized in his speech the importance of security -- a key point for Israelis -- and has declared that he does not intend to be an active broker in the negotiations.

That point, also important to Israelis, was underscored later by a senior administration official who said U.S. officials planned to “encourage” the two sides, but also “to leave them to come up with their own ideas” for the talks.

“Sometimes they don’t want us around,” the official said, speaking anonymously when commenting on the president’s thinking.

Israelis said they were pleased that Arab dignitaries, including Saudi and Syrian diplomats, were at the conference, even though Saudi officials ruled out shaking hands with the Israelis until peace is achieved.

Officials in Olmert’s government have hoped that the presence of the Arabs would build domestic support by suggesting that the meeting could lead to a normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab countries that do not recognize the Jewish state.

‘More than half a loaf’

Israeli officials insisted that Abbas too had met key goals, including getting a strong declaration of support from Bush, the blessing of the Arabs and other world powers, and a date for negotiations to begin.

“They got more than half a loaf,” one Israeli official said of the Palestinians.

Palestinians, however, are bound to soon begin demanding greater results. Diana Buttu, a former legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority, said Palestinians had low expectations that Abbas would bring home any concessions from the conference other than an Israeli agreement to start negotiations.

“But now, in the weeks ahead, they’re going to demand some results,” she said. “They’re going to say to Abbas: ‘You went to Annapolis. Now what about the prisoners in Israeli jails? What about the Israeli roadblocks and the settlements?’ ”

For a document as pale as the joint understanding presented Tuesday, the declaration was barely completed in time for the international conference. The senior Bush administration official said U.S. officials had been working nearly around the clock in recent days. Rice herself made nearly three dozen phone calls to foreign leaders over Thanksgiving weekend.

Negotiations between the two sides went into the night Monday, breaking off about 3 a.m. Tuesday with Abbas saying he would prefer no agreement to a meaningless one, officials said.

Abbas believed that in the absence of such a negotiated document, Rice might devise her own “work plan” for the negotiations that might tilt more toward the Palestinians.

However, at 5:30 a.m., Palestinians called U.S. officials asking for a resumption of talks. By 9 a.m., Rice was moving between buildings holding the delegations, leaning on negotiators from both sides to reach an agreement.

The deal was finally completed at 10:52 a.m. -- eight minutes before Bush was to step to the podium to formally open the conference.

Although the Annapolis meeting again demonstrated the challenges ahead, the turnout showed a widespread global desire for action. Government ministers said again and again that they came to support the effort, though they had no illusions about the chances for success by the weak governments of Olmert and Abbas.

“Let’s not raise expectations too high today,” said Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister.

Others sensed shortcomings in the process, calling for greater Israeli self-restraint and heightened U.S. efforts.

“Simply having another conference does no good for the people of the West Bank,” said a European diplomat, discussing talks with other countries on condition of anonymity. “They need improvement in their daily lives.”

The European said U.S. officials should “not control” talks, but must follow up.

“And push, certainly, the Israelis.”

Arab reaction

The senior Bush administration official said that in closed sessions, Israeli officials heard “tough” language from Arab diplomats, but also were encouraged by Mideast leaders.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Salaheddin Bashir urged the Palestinians to improve their security forces, but added that Israel had special responsibilities.

“Nothing can undermine Palestinian aspirations and confidence in peace with Israel [more] than the continuation of settlement expansion, the persistence of roadblocks, the proliferation of settler outposts and the encroachment of the ‘wall’ on Palestinian towns, villages and lands,” Bashir said, referring to the barrier Israel is constructing separating its territory from the West Bank. He called for “immediate measures that will alleviate hardships” for Palestinians.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas rejected Abbas’ plans to pursue negotiations. Abbas “has no mandate to discuss, to agree, or to erase any word related to our rights, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in Gaza. “He is isolated [and] represents himself only.”