Palestinian, Israeli officials differ on Bush peace call

Palestinian and Israeli officials yesterday gave widely different reactions to US President George W. Bush’s call Monday for an international peace conference to address the conflict, while analysts remained distinctly underwhelmed.Officials on both sides welcomed the US initiative, but disagreed in their interpretation of what it meant. Palestinians are keen to start final status negotiations on core issues such as borders, refugees and statehood, while Israel wants to focus on security issues and confidence-building measures.

“We welcome this call, particularly in light of the reemphasised US commitment towards a meaningful peace process that leads to an end of the Israeli occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state,” Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told the Associated Press.

Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said it was important that the conference moves to build a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“The best thing to do is focus on substance at this meeting,” he said. “We need this conference to focus on implementation, the transformation of words to deeds. That’s what will restore credibility to the peace process.”

Israeli officials, meanwhile, were quick to reject any possibility of final status negotiations.

“Israel has openly stated that we’re willing to talk about issues of ‘political horizon’ and about how to achieve the vision of two states for two peoples,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s spokeswoman Miri Eisin told Reuters.

“But we have been very clear that we are not willing to discuss at this stage the three core issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem,” Eisin added.

On Monday, Bush called for a peace conference in the autumn aimed at restarting peace talks between the two sides, calling it a “moment of choice” in the Middle East. US officials expressed hope that Arab countries, including nations that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, would attend.

The exact date and location of the conference remains unknown, as does its agenda and participants, and analysts on both sides remain sceptical that any substantial change in US policy has been laid out in Bush’s initiative.

“This is just talk,” political analyst Ali Jarbawi told The Jordan Times. “There is nothing new here. It’s like an aspirin: the conference is just meant to provide temporary relief.”

Jarbawi believes Bush is primarily motivated by wanting to bolster Abbas by showing some movement and to bring Arab countries to talk directly to Israel.

“But there is nothing of substance in the speech.”

Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher concurs.

“Iraq and Iran remain high above this conflict in the US agenda,” Alpher said yesterday. “There is nothing significantly new in Bush’s words.”

Alpher instead sees Bush’s speech, in emphasising PA institution-and infrastructure-building before substantive talks can take place, as basically outlining Washington’s understanding of former British prime minister Tony Blair’s mission in his role as the new Quartet envoy.

Blair is expected to visit the occupied West Bank and Israel next week. On Thursday, he will meet leaders of the Quartet, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, in Lisbon.

The meeting of the group’s main diplomats will be the first with Blair, who was appointed to the role immediately after resigning as British prime minister on June 27 and comes at what the UN has said is a “crucial moment”.

Many in Britain and the Arab world have expressed reservations about Blair’s appointment because of his decision to send British troops into Iraq and his stance over Israel’s conflict last year with Hizbollah in Lebanon.

In refusing to condemn the Jewish state’s response as disproportionate or call for an immediate ceasefire, he was accused of being pro-Israeli and too uncritical of Bush.

Russia was also lukewarm about Blair’s appointment, after relations between London and Moscow deteriorated following the poisoning death of former agent and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko last year.

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