Abbas, Peres unite behind ‘historic’ Mideast meeting

Israeli and Palestinian presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday hailed an upcoming Middle East peace conference as an historic opportunity while warning that failure could spell fresh trouble for the region.The conference to be held in Annapolis in the US state of Maryland “is an historic opportunity that should not turn into an historic failure”, Peres said in a landmark address to the Turkish parliament, the first by an Israeli leader in a Muslim-majority country.

The conference will allow Palestinians and Israelis to “work in depth on a peace agreement”, giving it “a direction, a framework and acceleration”, Peres, speaking in Hebrew, said through an interpreter.

“Let me underline that Israel is determined to end this disagreement,” he added. Abbas, who took the rostrum after Peres, warned that missing the chance presented by the US-sponsored meeting could lead to “dangerous consequences”.

“We must without fail seize this exceptional opportunity,” said Abbas, the first Palestinian leader to speak before the Turkish parliament. The Annapolis conference, which will take place later this year, aims to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that broke down seven years ago with the second Intifada, or uprising. But a senior Israeli official said that the meeting may last only a single day and not involve any real negotiations on ending the conflict.

The positions of the two sides are precarious in the run-up to the Annapolis meeting, analysts said, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fearing his fractious coalition could collapse if he makes concessions to the Palestinians.

Abbas could see the Islamist movement Hamas strengthened and a new round of violence flare if he comes back empty-handed. Israeli and the Palestinian negotiators have for weeks been striving to draft a joint document to present at the meeting which would serve as the basis for future negotiations.

Abbas said that “quite a bit of progress” had been made in the negotiations, in contrast to Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia, who on Monday spoke of a “real crisis” in the talks.

Palestinians want a declaration that addresses core issues, while Israel prefers a looser wording based on the 2003 roadmap that calls for the removal of some Jewish settlements in the West Bank in exchange for Palestinians taking over security responsibilities.

Earlier Tuesday, Abbas urged Israel to end its occupation of Arab lands in order to guarantee its own safety. “If there is peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the occupation of Arab lands ends, Israel will also live in a sea of peace, security and stability in the Middle East,” Abbas told a joint press conference here with Peres and Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

He was speaking shortly before the three leaders signed an agreement to set up joint industrial zones in the West Bank. “This agreement is a win-win situation,” Peres said.

The agreement paves the way for the creation of industrial zones in Tarqumia and Jenin under the leadership of Turkey’s Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges. Turkey hopes the project will provide employment to thousands of Palestinians and allow goods produced there to enter the United States, the European Union, and Gulf countries.

Israel will provide security for the planned zones and allow the produced goods to be shipped out by sea and air routes. The project, launched by Gul when he was foreign minister in 2005, initially called for the reconstruction of the Erez Industrial Zone on the northern tip of the Gaza Strip, but the project was frozen after Hamas gained control of the region.

The project is part of Ankara’s efforts to facilitate peace in the Middle East, using its good ties with the Jewish State and the Palestinians. Peres and Abbas were both scheduled to leave Turkey later Tuesday.

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