Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed Tuesday to immediately launch peace negotiations in order to reach an agreement by the end of 2008, President Bush said in his remarks at the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
Prior to his prepared address, Bush read a joint statement agreed on by the sides during last-minute negotiations at the summit.
Bush spoke before representatives of more than 50 nations and organizations that he had invited to Annapolis for a day-long conference aimed at restarting the stalled peace process. Among the participants were the foreign ministers of most Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, as well as the Syrian deputy foreign minister.
“We agreed to immediately launch good faith, bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues, including core issues, without exception,” Bush said, reading from a joint statement.
According to the statement, Israel and the PA also agreed to implement their commitments under the long-dormant U.S.-backed road map for Middle East peace.
According to sources in the Israeli delegation, the Palestinians had refused to sign the document until the last minute.
Bush met Tuesday with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at the Annapolis summit. The president met separately with Olmert and Abbas on Monday evening.
The first peace talks are to be held December 12, Bush said, and are to continue biweekly after that.
In his address following the meeting, Bush said, “The Palestinians understand that terrorism is the enemy standing in the way of a Palestinians state.”
“The [final peace] settlement will establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people just as Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people,” said Bush.
“The United States will keep its strong commitment to the security of the State of Israel and its existence as a homeland for the Jewish people,” he continued.
The U.S. president also urged the Palestinians to dismantle the “infrastructure of terror,” and called on Israel to end settlement expansion as well as evacuate the illegal West Bank settlement outposts.
“The task begun here in Annapolis will be difficult,” Bush acknowledged. “This is the beginning of the process, not the end of it.”
“The time is right, the cause is just, and with hard effort, I know they can succeed,” he said.
Bush also expressed strong support for democracy in Lebanon, saying it was crucial for Middle East peace.
In his address, Olmert said Israel was ready for painful concessions for peace, and to dramatically change the reality that emerged following the 1967 Six-Day War.
“We want peace,” he continued. We demand the end of terror, incitement and hatred. We are prepared to make a painful compromise, rife with risks, in order to realize these aspirations.”
“The negotiations will address all of the issues which we have thus far avoided dealing with,” he continued. ” am convinced that the reality that emerged in our region in 1967 will change significantly. I know this. Many of my people know this. We are prepared for it.”
Olmert said Israel was offering an outstretched hand for peace, despite all its concerns.
“The ongoing shooting of Qassam rockets against tens of thousands of residents in the south of Israel, particularly in the city of Sderot, serves as a warning sign, one which we cannot overlook,” he said. “I have come here, despite the concerns and the doubts and the hesitations.”
“I believe that there is no path other than the path of peace. I believe that there is no just solution other than the solution of two national states for two peoples,” he said. “I believe that there is no path that does not involve painful compromise for you, the Palestinians, and for us, the Israelis.”
The prime minister said he did not come to Annapolis to “settle historical accounts” for the conflict, adding that he was aware of that Palestinians too have suffered greatly.
Olmert expressed hopes that the sides could resolve the refugee issue, one of the toughest sticking points. “Israel will be part of an international mechanism that will assist in finding a solution to this problem,” he said.
The prime minister said that a peace agreement could only be implemented, in “gradual and careful” steps, after the road map is fully carried out. “We will abide by all of our obligations, and so will you.”
“There isn’t a single Arab state in the north, in the east or in the south with which we do not seek peace,” he said. “There isn’t a single Muslim state with which we do not want to establish diplomatic relations.”
The prime minister took the opportunity to call for the release of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldiers Gilad Shalit, Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. “I long for the day when I can see Gilad, Eldad and Udi back with their families,” he said. “And I will continue relentlessly in my efforts to achieve their release.”
In his address, Abbas called for an end to the “occupation of all Palestinian lands since 1967, including East Jerusalem, as well as the Syrian Golan and occupied Lebanese territory,” as well as a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
“We need East Jerusalem to be our capital, and to establish open relations with West Jerusalem,” he continued, urging respect for the holy places of all religions.
“I am not overstating it, Mr. President, if I say the region is at a cross-roads between the pre-Annapolis phase and the post-Annapolis phase,” he continued. “We are facing a test as our credibility as a whole - the United States, the Quartet, and the whole international community … Israel, Palestine and the Arab states as well.”
The PA chairman also praised Arab states for attending the summit, saying it proved the sincerity of Arab states to continue what they started by launching a peace initiative in 2002.
Abbas also called on Bush to ensure that Israel releases Palestinian prisoners.