Bush launches drive for Middle East peace

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators neared an agreement on Monday on a peace agenda ahead of a new drive by United States President George Bush to restart long-dormant talks to create a Palestinian state.

Expectations were low for three days of meetings in Washington and nearby Annapolis, Maryland, partly because Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas all face political challenges at home.

Despite the difficulties, Israeli and Palestinian officials said they were close to sealing an agreement on a joint document that would outline the peace goals to follow this week’s sessions.

A top aide to Abbas, Yasser Abed Rabbo, predicted an announcement on Monday or Tuesday on the joint document and said ”there will be extensive meetings and efforts in order to reach this document”.

Israeli officials said negotiators had narrowed some of their differences over the document, which will chart the course for negotiating the toughest issues of the conflict — Jerusalem, borders, security and Palestinian refugees.

”We’re getting close,” said an Israeli official.

Syria and Saudi Arabia promised to attend the Annapolis talks on Tuesday, joining envoys from more than 40 countries at the US Naval Academy, making the conference one of the most sweeping efforts in years.

Damascus will send a deputy minister rather than the foreign minister hoped for by US organisers.

A senior Israeli official played down the chances of any direct talks — or even an exchange of handshakes — between Israeli and Saudi or Syrian leaders during the conference.

”They [Arab leaders] won’t do it until they get something concrete from Israel,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Washington says the hard work will begin only after this week, when Israelis and Palestinians must tackle the issues at the core of the conflict.

”This conference will signal international support for the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ intention to commence negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realisation of peace between these two peoples,” Bush said in welcoming the two Middle East leaders who arrived over the weekend.

In a reminder of the tit-for-tat violence that has racked the region for decades, a Palestinian Hamas militant was killed and four others were wounded on Monday by an Israeli missile strike in the northern Gaza Strip.

Having largely shunned personal Middle East diplomacy during his seven years in office, Bush will meet Olmert and Abbas separately on Monday at the White House, and then together on Tuesday in Annapolis.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has put her credibility on the line for the conference. She argues Annapolis would be an opportunity for Israel and Sunni Arabs to close ranks against regional ”extremism” — an apparent allusion at least in part to Iran’s nuclear programme.

Iran has condemned Annapolis as a ruse for aiding Israel.

”All politicians in the world are aware that this conference is doomed to failure,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a televised speech in Tehran. — Reuters

An actual Black Friday deal

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