Momentum builds for Mideast peace summit

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

She says that too much emphasis is being put on whether Israeli and Palestinian negotiations can get to a substantive joint statement ahead of next week's meeting.

"Annapolis is the opening point for a discussion on the core issues," she says. "It's not supposed to give a solution to the core issues; it's supposed to frame them."

Palestinians, however, hold a different view. President Mahmoud Abbas cannot, in his weakened position, agree to a conference that will seem mostly like a photo opportunity, many Palestinians say.

Palestinian Information Minister Riad al-Maliki said that Palestinians would go to Annapolis with the expectation that Israel would "open the closed [Palestinian] institutions in Jerusalem, remove settlement outposts and institute a total freeze on the settlement activities, releasing the prisoners and removing the checkpoints," according to the Al-Ayyam newspaper.

"I don't know if we can finalize the document," senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israel's Army Radio after talks late Monday night between the Israeli and Palestinian teams.

Olmert, meanwhile, has taken measured steps in the direction. He said Monday that Israel would free 441 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails as a confidence-building measure in support of President Abbas.

He also promised that Israel would suspend construction in the West Bank, remove unauthorized settlement outposts, and halt all land expropriations in the West Bank. But those moves are already coming under suspicion from hard-line critics who say he should simultaneously raise the bar on Israeli expectations that Abbas fight militancy.

Israeli newspapers were full yesterday of news of a fatal Palestinian shooting attack on an Israeli settler in his car in the West Bank Monday night. Concern over additional terror attacks remains high.

Michael Oren, a historian and senior fellow at the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem, charged that Olmert should uphold Israel's demand that the Palestinians take steps toward "dismantling the terrorist infrastructure" and recognizing Israel's right to exist.

Mr. Oren also wonders aloud whether Olmert has the political capacity to remove 80,000 to 120,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank as would likely be required in a peace agreement expected to include substantial territorial swaps.

"I think no forward movement is possible unless it's imposed," Oren says. "It could be imposed by the Arab countries, the Bush administration, the State Department, but it won't happen on its own." Even economic incentives to propel peace forward, he says, won't make a significant difference. "Just because we put economics first, doesn't mean the Palestinians do. They have a whole other set of priorities, one that focuses on honor, religion, and territory."

Nonetheless, Mr. Blair, now the representative of the Quartet, an alliance of countries with an interest in promoting Middle East peace, has been doing his part to bolster the Palestinian economy.

"The greater the political progress, the easier the economic progress. The greater the Palestinian capability on security, the easier the politics and the economics," he said Monday, after announcing four projects – an agroindustrial park in Jericho, an emergency sewage treatment project in Gaza, industrial zones in the West Bank, and a major tourism initiative – all aimed at job creation and economic improvements as a route to promoting peace.

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