Prime Minister Olmert plays down peace deal chances by end of 2008

Ehud Olmert

December 03, 2007, Monday/ 18:11:00
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday played down expectations for a peace deal with the Palestinians before the end of 2008 as laid out at a US-sponsored peace conference last week.    “We will make an effort to hold speedy negotiations in the hope we may conclude by the end of 2008, but certainly there is no commitment for a firm timetable for their completion,” Olmert said at the start of Sunday’s Israeli cabinet meeting.

    US President George W. Bush assured Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the conference in Annapolis, Maryland, that Washington would actively engage in peacemaking, despite deep skepticism over chances for a deal before he leaves office.

    Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Bush to launch the first formal peace talks in seven years at the conference and agreed to try and reach a deal on Palestinian statehood by the end of next year. But, speaking at Israel’s first cabinet meeting since Annapolis, Olmert urged caution.

    In an apparent hint to right-wing coalition partners that he was not planning concessions without a reciprocal move from the Palestinians, Olmert said any progress in the peace process would depend on adhering to commitments under a long-stalled US peace “road map.”

    “The most important thing in the joint statement is that ... any agreement that we reach in the future will be dependent on completion of all road map commitments. In other words, Israel will not have to implement any commitment which emanates from the agreement before all the road map commitments have been met,” he said.

The 2003 US road map provides benchmarks that include a freeze of Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war, as well as a Palestinian crackdown on militants.

Olmert’s comments came after the United States withdrew a draft United Nations resolution endorsing action agreed at Annapolis -- a document Israeli officials said they felt was inapropriate.

    Although Israel apparently had no problems with the uncontroversial text, analysts suggested it was worried a formal resolution would get the UN too involved in Middle East peace efforts. Israel and the United States often complain of bias in the world body against the Jewish state.

    Skeptics say Bush’s time scale for peacemaking is too ambitious, especially given both Olmert and Abbas are politically weak.

    Olmert’s popularity has been hurt by corruption allegations and last year’s Lebanon war, and faces resistance to concessions from some right-wing members of his coalition. Abbas lost control of Gaza to Hamas militants in June.

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