Leaders pledge peace deal by next year

MID-EAST CONFERENCE IN ANNAPOLIS

Israeli-Palestinian statement promises to ‘resolve all outstanding issues without exception’.

ISRAEL and the Palestinians have pledged to seek a peace deal by the end of next year as they relaunched negotiations frozen for seven years at a major US-sponsored conference.

Flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, US President George W. Bush read out the pledge to top diplomats and others from 50 countries and organisations at the Middle East conference on Tuesday in Annapolis, Maryland.

“We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008,” said the joint Palestinian-Israeli statement read out by Mr Bush before preliminary closed-door talks.

The statement also promised to resolve “all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception”.

This included addressing the so-called “final-status issues” which have scuttled previous attempts at a peace deal – the future of Jerusalem, borders, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

It was a moment of diplomatic theatre, endorsed by the attendance of a member of the Saudi royal family and orchestrated by Mr Bush, who pledged that the US would “monitor and judge the fulfilment of the commitment of both sides”.

In a gesture that was as much about symbolism as it was about substance, Mr Bush shook hands with Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas. Then the Israeli and Palestinian leaders did the same with each other. Then – for maximum effect – the three men clasped hands, with a beaming Mr Bush in the middle.

Mr Abbas, however, pointedly and emotionally put all of the most divisive issues squarely at the centre of the talks, telling Mr Olmert “neither we nor you must beg for peace from the other”. He added: “It is a joint interest for us and you.”

When Mr Olmert spoke, he too was emotional and highly personal. “We are willing to make painful compromise, rife with risks, in order to realise these aspirations,” he said on Tuesday, adding that Israel also wanted peace with Syria and other Arab states.

Despite peace pledges, neither men showed any sign of ceding ground on their main differences at Tuesday’s conference. These included the status of Jerusalem and the refugee settlement issue.

And the path ahead looks fraught with difficulties. As an indication, the procedural work plan for the negotiations scheduled to start on Dec 12 in Jerusalem took two months to hammer out.

Mr Bush himself had to weigh in personally at one point on Tuesday as Israelis and Palestinians haggled over the details.

The way cleared, he set the stage for a rare three-way meeting with Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas that was to take place yesterday afternoon in the White House. After inaugurating the fresh round of peace talks at the White House, negotiating teams will hold their first session in the Middle East in just two weeks, on Dec 12, and Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas plan to continue one-on-one discussions they began earlier this year.

In addition, many of the same nations and organisations attending Tuesday’s conference will gather again on Dec 17 in Paris to raise money for the cash-strapped Palestinians.

As Mr Bush concluded at Tuesday’s conference: “This is the beginning of the process, not the end of it.”

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