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Faith leaders hail positives

The Baltimore Sun

The progress was slight but still significant, religious leaders in Maryland said yesterday of the outcome of the peace talks in Annapolis.

All major issues that have prevented peace and the creation of a Palestinian state in the past remain unresolved. Israeli and Palestinian representatives agreed only to keep talking with the goal of reaching resolution by the end of next year. But talk, in this case, between these groups, is not so cheap, local religious leaders said.

"Even to come to an agreement like that is very positive," said Irma Hafeez, president of the Montgomery County Muslim Council. She said the confirmation from Israel that it would support the creation of a Palestinian state is encouraging.

"Just the recognition is a positive step in the right direction," Hafeez said. "Once you recognize each other's identity, then acceptance is the next step."

The presence of more than 40 nations at the Annapolis talks buoyed the hopes of religious leaders. The broad political support for peace could keep these talks alive - and bring more pressure on the participants - unlike previous rounds of failed negotiations.

"If so many [nations] are going to validate this, and they validated it by their presence, then that's positive," said Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "And the challenge for the Bush administration is to keep the momentum going, and certainly [Secretary of State] Condi Rice has demonstrated her willingness to do so."

Abramson said the issues that remain to be negotiated - the boundaries of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees who were forced out of Israel, and Israeli settlements in the West Bank - have not changed for a long time. And negotiators will have to persist despite those who want to derail them.

"There are obviously going to be lots and lots of pitfalls throughout," Abramson said. "I'm sure there will be violence in terms of people trying to disrupt what occurred" in Annapolis.

At least one person was killed yesterday in clashes among Palestinians in the West Bank. Islamists who believe Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is a traitor for participating in the Annapolis talks fought with forces loyal to Abbas, according to news reports.

Some religious leaders were more cautious in assessing the results of the talks, taking a wait-and-see approach before passing judgment. They criticized the Bush administration for not doing the groundwork necessary to achieve more results at the conference.

"One has to hope that there will be progress," said Rabbi Mark G. Loeb of the Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, "but one has to also acknowledge the fact that this gathering did not receive the kind of preparation that a major international conference should have had, which would have made possible perhaps something more than what appears to be face-saving for everybody."

Akbar Ansari, head of the Baltimore County Muslim Council, said a consensus has emerged among Israelis, Palestinians and others around the world that peace must be achieved through negotiations and that the fighting cannot go on indefinitely.

"Enough is enough," Ansari said. "If so many people can sit down together [in Annapolis], then there's hope that people will get to the next stage and start working out the details."

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