Abbas: Aiming for peace deal before Bush leaves office
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said on Monday that Israel, the Palestinians and the United States have agreed to aim for a regional peace settlement before President George W. Bush steps down in January 2009.
During a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Ramallah, Abbas said there is a real possibility for achieving a peace deal with Israel by then, but also called on Israel to start meeting some of its short-term peace obligations, such as a settlement freeze.
"I agree with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that there is a real possibility to achieve peace, and I say we are serious to use this opportunity to reach this historical peace," Abbas said.
Abbas said he has received encouraging signs from Israel and the U.S., but expects tough going in the negotiations.
He called on Israel to begin immediately meeting its obligations under the first stage of the road map peace plan. The plan requires Israel to freeze settlement construction, remove illegal settlement outposts and ease Palestinian movement.
Abbas said the Palestinians are ready to do their part, including trying to disarm Palestinian militants.
During the news conference, Rice said she hoped a U.S.-led Middle East conference in Annapolis later this year would be the launching pad for "negotiations that I sincerely hope ... could achieve their goals within the time remaining to the Bush administration."
Rice met in Ramallah on Monday with Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. She was also to meet with lead Palestinian negotiator for the upcoming peace conference, Ahmed Qureia.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said earlier Monday the Palestinians have made progress in carrying out their obligations, while Israel has done little. Settlement construction continues and the vast majority of the outposts have not been dismantled.
"It seems that the Israelis have not read their obligations, Erekat said.
"The Palestinians will ask Rice to give each side a list of its obligations, with a timetable for implementation."
"The U.S. should be the judge, and every week say something about who is implementing, he said."
In a speech Sunday night, Rice warned that if the conference fails to produce progress toward setting up a Palestinian state, Muslim extremists would increase their influence.
"If we do not act now to show the Palestinians a way forward, others will show them a way forward," she said.
Rice told a gathering of scholars, leaders and former negotiators that both sides must take advantage of the current opportunity for peace talks. "Palestinians have waited too long for the dignity that will come with an independent state," she said. "We have all waited too long for peace.
Lieberman: PM plan to free more prisoners could rock coalition
The prime minister's plan to release more Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of good will to the Palestinian Authority prior to the Annapolis summit threatens the stability of the government coalition, Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman Israel Radio on Monday,
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is currently examining a request by the PA for freeing as many as 2,000 prisoners, according to sources in his bureau, but no decision has yet been made on the final number or the timing of the release.
On Sunday, during meetings with Rice, Israeli officials said that any deal that will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state would first have to assure Israel's security.
The secretary of state had a working lunch with Olmert, and a source in the Prime Minister's Bureau said that Rice had agreed to most of Israel's conditions regarding the Annapolis summit. The official said they spoke about the upcoming summit and "adhering to the principles of the road map as a basis for progress between Israel and the Palestinians."
Olmert has insisted that the joint declaration at Annapolis will not refer to the "core issues," nor to a fixed timetable for a solution to them. However, later Sunday, the prime minister did say that negotiations with the Palestinians after the summit will focus on the core issues.
"All the fundamental questions, the substantive issues, all the historical questions burdening our debate - are on the agenda," Olmert said during an address at the Saban Forum, an annual gathering of Israeli and U.S. political leaders.
The reference to the core issues, among the main bones of contention between the two sides, concerns the questions of refugees, Jerusalem and borders.
Discussing the possibility of an additional release of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, a political source in Jerusalem said Sunday that "because at Annapolis there will be no solutions presented to the core issues, the Palestinians want to show that they are making gains in routine matters - both in the implementation of the road map and in the release of prisoners."
"From our point of view, the release of prisoners is the easiest price to pay, but there are still no numbers," the same source clarified.
In recent months Israel has twice freed Palestinian prisoners, as a gesture of good will meant to bolster the position of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. A total of 250 prisoners were released on the eve of the summit at Sharm el-Sheikh in June, and 90 more in September, for the holy month of Ramadan.
The last release of prisoners was opposed by Shas and Yisrael Beitenu coalition partners, as well as by Minister of Transport Shaul Mofaz of the prime minister's party, Kadima.
Unlike other moves that directly affect the quality of life of Palestinian civilians, a decision to free prisoners is less dependent on agreement by the defense minister and defense establishment, in general. In deciding on such a release, Olmert can rely on the support of his Labor coalition partners and the majority of his Kadima colleagues.
Barak: Gaza sanctions won't lead to humanitarian crisis
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Rice during their meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday that the sanctions Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip will not lead to a humanitarian crisis.
He also promised to allow Palestinian policemen to deploy to other cities in the West Bank, if the deployment of 300 PA policemen in Nablus, which was carried out on Friday, proves to have a positive effect.
Rice also met Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Sunday, who told reporters afterward that the Palestinians "need to understand that the implementation of future understandings will be implemented only according to the phases of the road map - meaning security for Israel first and then the establishment of a Palestinian state."
Abbas, who was planning to meet with Rice on Monday, said in a speech in Ramallah that Palestinians had abided by 90 percent of the road map requirements and now "Israel must do its part."
Livni, who heads Israel's negotiating team preparing for a Middle East peace summit scheduled to take place in Annapolis, Maryland later this year, said that Israel was prepared to move forward in discussions with the Palestinians, although the situation was "complicated ... more than ever."
Rice told Livni she hoped her visit here would help to "advance the work you are doing bilaterally with the Palestinians as well as continuing to plan for the Annapolis meetings."
Also Sunday, Quartet envoy and former British prime minister Tony Blair said he hoped to announce a series of projects soon that will help bolster the Palestinian economy. He told a conference in Jerusalem that formal negotiations over creating a Palestinian state should not be "impossibly difficult." But he acknowledged that the path was "utterly fraught" and that both sides had to take steps to build confidence.
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