Pessimism high ahead of Middle East peace meeting

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned on Friday that the failure of new peace efforts would be “deadly” as new polls showed Israelis and Palestinians equally pessimistic about its chances of success.

Most Israelis and Palestinians do not think the meeting, opening on Tuesday in the United States city of Annapolis, will succeed, according to separate opinion polls.

Olmert, who has been striking a cautiously optimistic note ahead of the US meeting, warned in comments published on Friday that failure of the latest attempt to kick-start Middle East peace would be “deadly”.

“I have concluded that we cannot maintain the status quo between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert was quoted as saying by the Haaretz newspaper.

“We have spent too much time dealing with the status quo but it will lead to results that are much worse than those of a failed conference.

“It will result in Hamas taking over Judea and Samaria [the occupied West Bank], to a weakening or even the disappearance of the moderate Palestinians,” he said. “Unless a political horizon can be found, the results will be deadly.”

Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in mid-June by routing forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the US meeting is aimed at isolating the Islamists, observers say.

The Hamas takeover split the Palestinians into two separate entities, with Abbas running the occupied West Bank and Hamas controlling Gaza.

The Islamists, who crushed Abbas’s secular Fatah party in parliamentary elections in January 2006, have urged Arab states not to attend the US conference, saying that Abbas does not have a mandate to negotiate on behalf of all the Palestinian people.

Sixty-nine percent of Israelis surveyed for the poll published in the top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot said they supported the conference called by US President George Bush.

But 71% believe the meeting will not succeed in jumpstarting the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, which has been dormant for seven years.

And 82% believe it will be impossible to strike a final peace deal with the Palestinians in 2008, as Olmert said this week he hoped to do.

Palestinians are likewise pessimistic.

An opinion poll carried out by the al-Najah University in the West Bank this week showed that only 30% of Palestinians believe that the Annapolis meeting will succeed, compared with 55% who take a more pessimistic view.

Negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians on a final status agreement are expected to begin after the US meeting, but the parties have been cautious about raising expectations that they will finally be able to resolve the thorniest issues of their decades-long conflict, like borders, refugees and Jerusalem.

Weeks of intense talks between negotiating teams have failed to produce a joint statement for the US meeting to serve as basis for final status talks.

But Olmert said earlier in the week that he hoped to reach a final deal with the Palestinians next year.

In comments to Haaretz, he said: “The gap [between the parties] is such that intensive negotiations will be able to narrow them to the point of formulating an agreement.”

The negotiations will “be difficult, but all the difficulties of conducting negotiations are familiar to me. I am not approaching this with naiveté, but as a very sober person, who knows all [the Palestinian] weaknesses”.—AFP

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