ANNAPOLIS, Md. (JTA) – Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas may have bridged the necessary gaps to issue a joint commitment to pursue peace, but their words in Annapolis revealed the substantial distance they have yet to travel.
President Bush announced the hoped-for agreement early in the day on Tuesday, saying the Israeli and Palestinian leaders had jointly pledged to endeavor to achieve peace by the end of 2008 under close U.S. supervision.
But the gaps at the U.S.-convened talks Tuesday in Annapolis, Md., were manifest in the precedents each side cited in their speeches.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, said a peace agreement must be consistent with Resolution 194, the 1949 U.N. measure that called for a return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in the then-newly established Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the agreement would be based in part on Bush’s April 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – a document that rejected any such return of refugees.
The two speeches differed in tone as well. Olmert, while adamant in defending Israel’s right to security, was expansive toward the Palestinians, including the refugees and their descendants. Abbas, by contrast, acknowledged his obligation to combat terrorism in defensive, almost defiant terms.
Olmert’s speech marked the first time Israel formally committed to helping solve the Palestinian refugee problem and, extraordinarily, went so far as to implicitly acknowledge Palestinian suffering as a cause of terrorism.
“For dozens of years, many Palestinians have been living in camps, disconnected from the environment in which they grew, wallowing in poverty, neglect, alienation, bitterness, and a deep, unrelenting sense of deprivation,” he said. “I know that this deprivation is one of the deepest foundations which fomented the ethos of hatred towards us. We are not indifferent to this suffering. We are not oblivious to the tragedies you have experienced.”
Olmert envisioned Israel joining an international effort “to assist these Palestinians in finding a proper framework for their future, in the Palestinian state which will be established in the territories agreed upon between us.”
He went on to say, ” I have no doubt that the reality that was created in our region in 1967 will be changed in a very significant way. It will be as difficult as the netherworld for many of us. But it is inevitable. I know it. Many of my people know it. We are ready for it.”
Abbas cast his need to combat terrorism in terms of defending Palestinian rights.
“I wish to emphasize that we shall pursue our obligations under the ‘road map’ in order to combat chaos, violence, terrorism, and to ensure security, order and the rule of law,” Abbas said, referring to the road map, the effort President Bush launched in 2003 to end terrorism and establish a Palestinian state.
“The government of the Palestinian National Authority works tirelessly and without any wavering under extremely difficult conditions to achieve this noble goal that represents first and foremost a Palestinian national interest before it becomes a political requirement that is imposed by signed accords or the road map,” he said.
The three speeches differed on the Syria question, but that seemed less an expression of disagreement and more an elaborate game of good cop-bad cop.
Abbas said any agreement must include the return of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Syria sent a deputy foreign minister to the conference anticipating that the Golan would be on the agenda.
Olmert picked up that signal and said “there is not a single Arab state in the north, east or south with which we do not seek peace.” Including the “north” was a signal of the Olmert government’s desire to break Syria away from the orbit of Iran and its recalcitrantly anti-Israel regime.
Bush, however, made it clear that Syria should count out Lebanon as a prize for joining the peace process. Syria ended its 29-year occupation of its neighbor in 2005 under U.S. and French pressure, but since then has been attempting to maintain its influence through threats and assassinations.
“The Lebanese people are in the process of electing a president,” Bush said in his speech, veering suddenly from the topic of Israel and the Palestinians. “That decision is for the Lebanese people to make, and they must be able to do so free from outside interference and intimidation.
“As they embark on this process, the people of Lebanon can know that the American people stand with them, and we look forward to the day when the people of Lebanon can enjoy the blessings of liberty without fear of violence or coercion.”
In the joint statement, announced by Bush prior to the speeches by Olmert and Abbas, the two sides announced, “In furtherance of the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, we agree to immediately launch good-faith, bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues, without exception, as specified in previous agreements.”
The Israelis and Palestinians agreed “to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations, and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008.”
The sides will establish a steering committee that will meet for the first time on Dec. 12.
They will adhere to the road map, which calls on Palestinians to combat terrorism and the Israelis to freeze settlement in its first stage.
However, now the sides will have to defer to an “American-Palestinian and Israeli mechanism led by the United States to follow up on the implementation of the road map.”
According to the joint statement, “the United States will monitor and judge the fulfillment of the commitment of both sides of the road map” – a plan that intensifies U.S. involvement to an unprecedented extent.