Israel, Palestine for peace deal by late '08 | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 29, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 29, 2007

Israel, Palestine for peace deal by late '08

Israel and the Palestinians pledged Tuesday to seek a peace deal by the end of 2008 as they re-launched negotiations frozen for seven years at a major US-sponsored conference.
Flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, US President George W Bush read out the pledge to top diplomats and others from 50 countries and organizations meeting in Annapolis, Maryland.
"We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008," said the joint Palestinian-Israeli statement read out by Bush before preliminary closed-door talks.
But within hours of the announcement, Olmert said a 2008 deadline for a deal might not be reached.
"We are not trying to suggest that it can be done within a week or within a year, but you have to start somewhere. And we are committed, absolutely, to help start it," Olmert told National Public Radio (NPR).
Brushing aside skeptics, Bush told international delegates meeting at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis: "I believe that now is precisely the right time to begin these negotiations -- for a number of reasons."
He cited a new willingness among the leaders of both sides as well as global support for fresh negotiations, and warned "we must not cede victory to the extremists."
The Annapolis conference amounts to Bush's biggest push for Middle East peace since he took office in 2001.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said later the new negotiations would begin on Wednesday at the White House between Olmert and Abbas.
But Bush acknowledged sealing a deal would not be easy, and in a sign of the difficulties ahead, tens of thousands of Palestinian Islamists poured onto the streets in Gaza and the West Bank in protests which left one Palestinian dead.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told reporters that groups like the Palestinian Islamist extremist group Hamas are "the Achilles heel" of the new peace process because they could change the agenda with attacks.
Israeli settlers in the West Bank were also anxiously watching the outcome of the talks fearing they could spell the end of their dream of a "Greater Israel."
But Abbas told his people to "trust in the future, for an independent Palestine is arriving," while Olmert vowed Israel was prepared to make a "painful compromise" to achieve peace.
"Israel is committed to peace. Israel is prepared for a compromise," he reiterated later in the NPR interview.
The joint statement from the Palestinians and Israelis was a victory for Bush, only hammered out at the last minute with his direct intervention.
The first meeting of a top-level steering committee is to be held on December 12, and the two sides agreed "to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

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