Abbas Sees Palestinian State Soon Achievable

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Nov. 5 -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Monday that he believes the path to peace with Israel is now clear and that a Palestinian state can be achieved before the end of the Bush administration in January 2009.

Echoing a statement made Sunday night by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Abbas said that an upcoming peace conference in Annapolis would mark the start of serious negotiations over core issues that have posed insurmountable obstacles for decades -- the status of Jerusalem, the borders of Israel and Palestine, the removal of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the rights claimed by Palestinian refugees who left or were forced from their homes when the state of Israel was established.

Abbas praised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts and her "insistence on . . . concluding peace within the presidential term of Mr. Bush." Her persistence, he said, had turned the Annapolis conference into "a serious occasion to launch a genuine peace process."

The statements by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders exceeded Rice's most optimistic expectations for a diplomatic effort that appeared to be faltering as recently as last week. The leaders' agreement to attend the conference and their professed optimism are likely to open the door for Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, to take part.

"It is a historic time, a time of real opportunity," said Rice, standing alongside Abbas at a news conference here. The negotiations, she said, "could achieve their goal within the time remaining within the Bush administration."

Others, while claiming genuine progress, were less certain of where it would lead. One senior State Department official, recalling decades of dashed hopes, cautioned that "you never say never in the Middle East. You've always got to be ready for bad news."

It was similarly unclear whether Olmert and Abbas, both of whom are politically weak, will be able to carry others along with them.

"The assumption on this side is that the Palestinians can't deliver," said one Israeli Labor Party lawmaker. "Speeches are wonderful, but we have heard speeches for too long."

The Palestinians, riven by their own differences and long suspicious of U.S. intentions, set the bar similarly high. Abbas had told Rice, Palestinian officials said, that they expected substantive agreement on key issues within six months after the Annapolis meeting, expected to be held in the last week in November or soon after.

Abbas noted that Olmert, in a nationally televised speech Sunday night, had said that "all issues" between them would ultimately be on the table. "I agree with Prime Minister Olmert that this is a real opportunity to achieve peace," Abbas said.

Rice's last trip to the region only three weeks ago -- her seventh this year -- appeared to leave her Annapolis proposal in limbo as preparatory talks became mired in procedural as well as substantive disputes.

Revisiting old arguments, the Israelis wanted the conference to begin with a general statement of "intentions" for future talks. The Palestinians demanded a specific agenda, with an agreed timetable for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The divisions were finessed in proposals last week and firmed up during Rice's visit. Instead of beginning with a negotiating agenda, Annapolis would end with one. "The day after" Annapolis, Rice said Sunday, would be the first day of direct negotiations toward Palestinian statehood.

To build public support and enable both sides to approach Annapolis with momentum, Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to begin implementing confidence-building measures that were agreed on years ago but that never got off the ground.

The Palestinians have moved to deploy more police, with more aggressive mandates, against extremists in several West Bank cities, a process that began last weekend in Nablus. Israel reportedly intends to release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners.

Both sides want more results before Annapolis. For his part, Abbas on Monday enumerated Palestinian demands that will be difficult for Israel to meet in more than a symbolic way, including a halt to all West Bank settlement construction and the reopening of Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem.

At the news conference, Abbas also listed "the need for Israelis to commit to stopping military aggression" in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel, he said, must also agree not to prohibit food, medicine, electricity and water from reaching the Gaza Strip, which was forcibly seized last summer by the Hamas movement that has challenged Abbas's leadership. Palestinian fighters continue to launch rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.

Despite worries about whether enough will be accomplished over the next several weeks, Rice appeared content to bask in a rare moment of at least temporary success. "I am quite confident that the will is there on both sides," she said. "People want us to end this conflict."

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