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Momentum builds for Mideast peace summit

But Israelis, Palestinians have no blueprint yet for talks to begin Tuesday.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 21, 2007


Israeli and Palestinian leaders are pedaling toward peace with an energy that has not been this palpable in more than seven years, when talks at Camp David broke off and sparked a torrent of violence.

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On Tuesday, Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, gave his support for a peace summit scheduled for next Tuesday in Annapolis, Md., after he met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt. On Friday, Arab League delegates meet to develop a unified front ahead of the talks.

In a large part, the two sides are being nudged to the table by international cajoling – from the White House to Arab states to the ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

For the optimistic, the apparent seriousness of all parties infuses a hint of often-absent confidence that Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has a real chance.

But for those less positive about Israelis and Palestinians reaching a viable solution, this might be too heavy a load to carry in too short a time. And as such, many here wonder whether, even with a heavy-handed pull from Washington and the rest of the international community, the penchant for backpedaling on peace moves will inevitably disappoint.

"I look forward to [the conference] leading to the launching of serious peace negotiations which deal with all final status issues in a defined time frame and according to an agreed follow-up mechanism," Mr. Mubarak said Tuesday.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been meeting at a quickened clip in recent weeks in effort to reach an agreed-on document that they can present to the parties at Annapolis, based at least in part on the Bush administration's "road map" to peace of several years ago.

Palestinians say that it is only with such a "declaration of principles" in hand that they will attend, and with them, moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, which has been pushing for a more comprehensive peace deal.

In a message to Arab states that have been reluctant to commit to attending the conference, Mr. Olmert said that a Saudi Arabia-backed peace plan would "surely make a significant contribution toward a solution between us and the Palestinians." The prime minister said he hoped serious peace talks would follow the Annapolis meeting, resulting in a final agreement in 2008.

"I want the Arab nations to know that the negotiations will tackle all the main issues. We won't try to avoid any problem or overlook any issue," he said.

Palestinians have indicated that they want Arab states there, but only if Israel is willing to put substantial issues on the table. Many here say they doubt Israel will, and its resistance to doing so is diminishing expectations.

"The Israelis are really not in a rush to settle the core issues, and the Palestinians are too weak to do so," says Bassam Zubeidy, a political scientist at Birzeit University outside Ramallah.

The promise of having a clear and concrete working paper to launch the Annapolis conference continues to hang in doubt, sources on both sides indicated.

"There's been progress but that doesn't mean that there will be a joint statement," says Miri Eisin, Olmert's spokeswoman. Returning from the meetings in Egypt, she acknowledges that getting to a declaration has proved difficult. What each side wants from the documents varies wildly.

"Israel wants to go forward but not at any price," Ms. Eisin says. "If these were simple issues that could be solved just like that, they wouldn't have been our sticking points for years and years."