Israeli and Palestinian negotiators made progress on Monday toward completing a joint statement for the planned Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., and President Bush appeared ready to paper over remaining differences between the two sides with his planned speech on Tuesday.
Palestinian negotiators expressed optimism that they would come away from the conference with enough substance — including a timetable for a year of renewed, intense negotiations — to give the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, the political cover he needs to satisfy battle-weary Palestinians back home.
The two sides were still wrangling late Monday over specifics of the timetable, with the Palestinians pressing for negotiations to be completed within the next eight months, a demand the Israelis have rejected. But Bush administration officials said that one way or the other, either in the joint statement or in Bush’s speech, a time frame would be set with the end of Bush’s term in office as the deadline for a final peace deal.
“I’m optimistic,” Bush said after meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, at the White House on Monday.
Speaking later at a State Department dinner for participants, Bush said that achieving the goal of a Palestinian-Israeli peace “requires difficult compromises, and the Israelis and Palestinians have elected leaders committed to making them.”
Olmert said that international support for the conference “is very important to us.”
“This time, it’s different because we are going to have a lot of participation in what I hope will launch a serious process of negotiations between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert said.
Bush administration officials are expected to announce on Tuesday that the negotiations will begin immediately after the one-day Annapolis conference, at a White House meeting on Wednesday at which Olmert, Bush and Abbas are already scheduled to hold talks.
Officials from about 49 countries and international organizations — including Senegal, Greece and Brazil — are attending the conference, Bush’s first real effort at Middle East peacemaking since he took office. But the reality is that only five players matter in Annapolis: the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Americans, the Saudis and the Syrians.
Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said he had agreed to come because the United States had promised that the conference would lead to talks on the final status issues that have bedeviled peace negotiations since 1979: the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees who left or were forced to leave their homes in Israel, the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the borders of a final Palestinian state.
But al-Faisal signaled just how tough the refugee issue, in particular, would be.