US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday launched a round of efforts to bring Palestinian and Israeli negotiators closer to forging an outline for a final peace deal, ahead of a critical conference sponsored by the US.
Rice, who arrived in Israel late on Saturday for two days of talks in the region, said she didn't expect the two sides to conclude an agreement on the outline during her brief visit. But she said she planned to try to prod them ahead.
"They're working on some knotty issues," Rice told reporters Saturday on her way to Israel. "I want to help make sure they're working in a straight line ahead."
Rice was last in the region in the middle of last month, and neither side has reported any progress in their talks since. She was to meet yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Today she has meetings scheduled with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia.
An outline for peace deal is supposed to be the centerpiece of the US-sponsored Middle East conference, and a springboard for full-fledged negotiations that are to produce a Palestinian state. But the two sides have radically different visions of how specific the outline should be. The Palestinians are pushing for greater specificity on how contentious issues that have derailed talks in the past would be resolved, while Israel wants a vaguer document that would give it more flexibility. The Palestinians also want a deadline set for reaching a peace deal, even though earlier deadlines have been set and ignored.
A final accord would have to resolve the issue of final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.
The meeting, which US President George W. Bush announced over the summer, is tentatively expected to take place later this month or next month in Annapolis, Maryland. The participation of regional powerhouses like Saudi Arabia that don't have diplomatic ties with Israel is considered crucial to the meeting's success, but Arab states have been reluctant to endorse the conference, afraid it will be more window-dressing than substance.
On Saturday Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said that Palestinians won't regard US-led Middle East peace efforts as credible unless a deadline is set for a deal.
Israel has rejected a timeline, the US has been cool to the idea and Fayyad said he is not issuing an ultimatum. He warned that the situation on the ground is not static and that with continued Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, prospects for a two-state solution were getting dimmer every day.
Israel insists it's eager to reach a peace deal, and that such assurances should be sufficient. "Israel is committed to reaching peace with the Palestinians and we want to achieve this in the most expedient way possible based on two states for two peoples," David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman, said on Saturday.
"We need to rekindle signs of hope after years of deterioration," he said. "The situation today on the ground is a lot worse than it was when this process began."
Israel must also stop expanding its West Bank settlements and remove roadblocks that severely hamper the movement of Palestinian people and goods, he said.