World and Nation

Israeli and Palestinian Officials Say They Hope for Accord Soon

Israeli and Palestinian officials hope to reach a comprehensive peace agreement before the end of President Bush’s term, Israeli, Palestinian and American officials said Monday.

That goal fits with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s efforts to push the two sides toward a peace plan during her tenure. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel said that they would use the coming Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., to begin substantive talks on the four contentious final status issues that have bedeviled peace negotiators since 1979.

“The American, Israeli and Palestinian sides are all insistent that we reach an end before the end of President Bush’s term in office, and that is what we wish,” Abbas told a news conference here at Yasser Arafat’s old compound. Standing beside him, Rice nodded approvingly.

Olmert strongly endorsed the peace talks in a speech to a Jerusalem audience the night before. While the Palestinians pushed hard for the conference to tackle the final status issues, the Israelis had balked, saying they wanted security needs met first.

Olmert, conceding nothing on the security question, said, “Annapolis will be the jumping-off point for continued serious and in-depth negotiations which will not avoid any issue or ignore any division which has clouded our relations with the Palestinian people for many years.”

But in his speech, delivered in Hebrew and broadcast live in Israel, Olmert cast the issue of a timetable far more cautiously than did Abbas. “If we and the Palestinians act with determination,” he said, “there is a chance that we can achieve real accomplishments, perhaps even before the end of President Bush’s term in office.”

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators will continue to haggle over just how hard and firm the Annapolis commitment to final status negotiations should be, but the public endorsement of something like a timetable is a positive sign that Annapolis will be the starting point for substantive peace negotiations, Israeli, Arab and American officials said.

Rice’s aides were jubilant. “We didn’t expect him to talk about negotiating on all the issues,” a senior State Department official said of Olmert’s speech. “I found it frankly remarkable that he would choose the podium there, where he knew that audience would be watching for a signal.”