RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israeli and Palestinian officials have given themselves until the end of President Bush's term to reach a comprehensive peace agreement, Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. officials said yesterday.
The deadline of just over a year from now, laid out Sunday by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and confirmed yesterday by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, gives a huge boost to the efforts of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to push the sides toward a peace plan during her tenure. Abbas and Olmert indicated that the coming Middle East peace conference in Annapolis would begin substantive talks on the four contentious final status issues that have bedeviled negotiators since 1979.
"The American, Israeli and Palestinian sides are all insistent that we reach an end before the end of President Bush's term in office, and that is what we wish," Abbas said at a news conference at Yasser Arafat's old compound. Rice, standing beside him, nodded approvingly.
Rice has not set a date or issued invitations for the Annapolis conference, which she has said previously would take place this month or next. The meeting is to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations that have not been directly involved previously in discussions on the creation of a Palestinian state.
Despite optimistic notes sounded by Israeli and Palestinian leaders in recent days, Rice was circumspect yesterday on the timing of the conference.
"As to when Annapolis will take place, the president has said by the end of the year," Rice said. She used the same description in an earlier interview with Fox News.
Abbas' remarks followed an unusually strong endorsement of the peace talks from Olmert before a Jerusalem audience Sunday. While the Palestinians have been pushing hard for the conference to tackle the final status issues, the Israelis had balked, saying they want their security needs met first.
While conceding nothing on the security question, Olmert said that "Annapolis will be the jumping-off point for continued serious and in-depth negotiations which will not avoid any issue or ignore any division which has clouded our relations with the Palestinian people for many years."
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators will continue to haggle over just how hard and firm the Annapolis commitment to final status negotiations will be, but the public endorsement of a timetable from both sides is a positive sign, said senior Bush administration officials traveling with Rice.
To be sure, Israeli and Arab officials say Rice still has an uphill battle ahead; Israeli and Palestinian negotiators haven't decided how they will tackle the four final status issues: the status of Jerusalem, the contours of a Palestinian state, the removal of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the fate of refugees who left, or were forced to leave, their homes as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Sun reporter David Nitkin contributed to this article.