After Annapolis, hurdles for Israeli and Palestinian leaders

Observers warn that Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert may be too weak to keep peace efforts on track.

In this Jewish enclave near Nablus Tuesday, construction crews were laying the foundation for a new housing complex, largely unaware that in Annapolis, Md., Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert was pledging to freeze the growth of settlements in the West Bank.

"This will be the best view in town," says one worker, pointing westward to Israel proper. "It will be ready in another one-and-a-half to two years. But who knows, maybe they'll decide to freeze construction?"

Halting settlements in the West Bank is just one of the matters that Mr. Olmert will be tasked with overseeing following the peace summit in Maryland intended to kick-start talks between Israelis and Palestinians and lead to a peace agreement by the end of 2008. The two sides have agreed to implement the US-backed "road map" to peace, which calls for confidence-building measures to be taken by both sides, such as stopping Israeli settlement expansion and ending Palestinians attacks.

But many observers warn that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Mr. Olmert, both already under fire at home, will be hard pressed to make good on commitments regarding Israeli military withdrawals and Palestinian security reforms.

"The road map has been dismissed as a dead letter, because of the inability of the parties to carry out their obligations. And here it is back again. I don't think either side is strong enough to manage," says Yossi Alpher, editor of the Israeli-Palestinian web journal

"Olmert can't deliver 30 outposts and a settlement freeze. I don't think this format for negotiations has a strong infrastructure. It's doomed, as I see it."

Four years ago, the road map floundered because each side accused the other of bad faith in carrying out its initial commitments. As Israelis and Palestinians renew a commitment to peace negotiations, the questions of a settlement freeze illustrates how difficult it will be for two politicians to make the concessions necessary to build confidence among publics deeply skeptical about this new process.

Indeed, though Israel has the ability to freeze housing construction, Olmert will tread carefully, says Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry's spokesperson. Since the early 1990s, Israel's policy has ruled out new settlements, but that hasn't stopped the population in existing settlements from doubling. The building activity will be difficult to stop, experts say.

"Anyone who thinks that either party can fully implement all of their obligations in one day is fooling themselves," says Mr. Regev. "Israeli action in a vacuum of Palestinian inaction makes it much more difficult."

Jewish settlers are already up in arms. Arik Yefet, an evacuee from a Gaza Strip settlement abandoned two years ago, blamed Olmert for a sudden delay in a tender to build about 40 new housing units for new residents.

"It's definitely connected to Annapolis. We see humanitarian gestures toward the Palestinians at the expense of our own wounds," says Mr. Yefet, a burly man with a full beard and hearty optimism that the government delay won't last for long. "Olmert doesn't have the ability [to freeze settlements] and the people won't allow it. A majority of the parliament members from the coalition even oppose it."

According to Ariel's mayor, Ron Nachman, the settlement's population has more than doubled in the past 15 years from 8,000 to 18,000. That puts it behind Modiin Ilit, Maaleh Adumim, and Beitar Ilit, all of which surround Jerusalem.

"It's an irrational decision, because they can't take Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, or Modiin Ilit and compare it to an outpost. I think the prime minister committed to [President] Bush because they were afraid the Arab countries wouldn't come to Annapolis," says the mayor.

Peace Now, an Israeli settlement watchdog group, says there is active construction in 88 of Israel's recognized settlements and about 10 outposts. And even if Olmert announces an official freeze tomorrow, it might not stop thousands of potential housing units at varying stages of planning.

"They might say, 'We're freezing all future units, but we're going to complete the existing units.' There are many points of approval where we can argue. If you ask me, no settlement activity means no bulldozer activity," says Hagit Ofran, the chief settlement monitor for Peace Now.

"If you're [headed toward] a peace deal, how can you continue to build when you know you're going to evacuate?"

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Steps toward 2008 treaty

• Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will launch bilateral talks.

• The two sides will conclude an agreement by the end of 2008.

• A steering committee will develop a joint working plan, and establish and oversee the work of negotiations teams.

• Palestinian and Israeli leaders will continue to meet on a biweekly basis.

• The sides will implement obligations under the US-backed "road map."

Source: White House

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