Olmert holds little hope for peace deal
The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has talked down any expectations of a peace agreement with the Palestinians by the end of 2008 that might have been generated by last week's meetings in Annapolis.
Reporting to his cabinet, Mr Olmert insisted that there was "no commitment to a specific timetable". While every effort would be made to hold accelerated negotiations, beginning on 12 December, Israel would implement any agreement only after the Palestinians fulfilled all their obligations under the 2003 international roadmap for peace. "I think this is very important," Mr Olmert said, "and assures the security component, which is the most important issue that we are dealing with".
The roadmap, drafted by the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia, requires the Palestinian Authority to end violence and "begin sustained, targeted and effective operations aimed at confronting all those who engage in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure".
With the Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas, which does not recognise Israel, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, will be hard pressed to deliver – unless he rebuilds a pragmatic coalition with Hamas.
The joint declaration, announced in Annapolis, reaffirmed the key role of the roadmap, but called for both sides to confront terrorism, "whether committed by Palestinians or Israelis". The roadmap also requires Israel to dismantle illegal West Bank outposts and freeze all settlement activity.
With two right-wing ethnic parties in his coalition, Mr Olmert has resisted constant international pressure to remove the dozens of outposts or prevent the settlers adding new houses to meet the "natural growth" of their population.
Although they are in no hurry to leave the government, the Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu party and the Sephardi Shas, which between them have 23 parliamentary seats out of 120, are threatening to resign if the Annapolis rhetoric is translated into deeds.
Mr Olmert's statement yesterday, which a spokesman said did not differ from his position at Annapolis, was meant to keep them on board for as long as possible.
In a post-summit tour of Arab capitals, Mr Abbas took an equally tough stance, rejecting Israeli demands to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. "The Palestinians do not accept the formula that the state of Israel is a Jewish state," he said after talks with President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. "We say that Israel exists, and in Israel there are Jews and there are those who are not Jews."
Mr Olmert wants the Jewish definition in order to strengthen Israel's case against re-admitting Palestinian refugees to homes they fled in 1948. Israel wants them absorbed in a Palestinian state. Mr Abbas is not prepared to concede the "right of return" before negotiations even begin.
As a goodwill gesture, Israel is planning to release 429 Palestinian security prisoners today. More than 400 will return to the West Bank, the rest to the Gaza Strip. Israel is also expected to agree soon to allow Palestinian security services to receive armoured vehicles donated by Russia and to recruit more policemen to enable them to take control of West Bank cities.
At the same time, however, Israel yesterday tightened the screws on Hamas in Gaza by reducing supplies of fuel to a new low in retaliation for Qassam rockets fired daily into southern Israel. Palestinian officials said Israel delivered only a quarter of the amount imported before Hamas seized the Gaza strip in June.