Negotiator: Bush should hold out for accord before Mideast conference
JERUSALEM -- President Bush should not convene his planned Mideast peace conference next month if Israel and the Palestinians have not achieved an agreement in advance, a Palestinian negotiator said Thursday.
Israel has been pressing for a vaguely worded document that would gloss over the toughest issues still outstanding -- borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Palestinians prefer a detailed preliminary agreement with a timetable for creating a Palestinian state, though it is not clear if they would refuse to agree to less.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in an interview with Israel's Channel 10 TV, that when then-president Bill Clinton convened an Israeli-Palestinian summit in July 2000, it broke up without agreement and violence erupted three months later. Lack of proper preparation for the summit is often blamed.
"Do you think President Bush will do what President Clinton did?" Erekat said. "I really doubt the Americans will issue the invitation if decisions are not made by [Palestinian] President [Mahmoud] Abbas and [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert."
Meeting set for November
The conference is tentatively set for Annapolis, Md., at the end of November, but Erekat noted that no invitations have been sent.
He said the Israeli-Palestinian agreement before the conference could be "two, three pages." Olmert and Abbas have met six times in recent weeks to discuss the issues. Erekat said they have come to some agreements, but he would not elaborate.
Erekat, a member of the five-person Palestinian team negotiating with Israel over the document, said overall agreement is near. "I don't think we need negotiations anymore," he said. "Negotiations are over. It's time for decisions. We have never been closer to achieving the end game than we are now."
He said peace is vital for the Palestinians. "I don't want my son to be a suicide bomber," he said.
Erekat dismissed the notion that neither Olmert nor Abbas is strong enough politically to make the concessions necessary for an agreement or get the backing of their people.
"If Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas reach the agreement on the end game, they'll be the most important persons in this holy land since Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem," he said. Erekat said a peace accord would be put before the Palestinian people in a referendum.
He discounted the ability of the militant Islamic Hamas to sabotage such an accord. He acknowledged that Abbas' Fatah is not strong enough to retake Gaza by force after the Hamas takeover in June, but "once you produce an end-game agreement, Hamas is down without firing a shot."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that she asked the Israeli ambassador for clarifications about an Israeli plan to build a road near Jerusalem, partly on confiscated Palestinian land. Palestinians charge the construction will cut them off from Jerusalem.
Rice told reporters on the way to Moscow that she had not received a reply. Rice is due in Israel and the Palestinian areas over the weekend.
Also Thursday, a top architect of Israeli military policy in the Gaza Strip was quoted as saying that the army will have to conduct a lengthy ground operation to halt rocket fire, the clearest sign yet that Israel is preparing an offensive against Hamas.
In an interview with the Yediot Ahronot daily, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky said a Gaza operation appears inevitable.
"We cannot over time stand idly by as Hamas rearms in the strip and as the rocket fire continues incessantly," Kaplinsky, who stepped down this month as the army's deputy chief of staff, told the newspaper. "In order to dismantle the terror infrastructure, systematic treatment is necessary. A ground operation is a question of timing."
He did not elaborate.
Since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip two years ago, the rocket fire has persisted, despite frequent Israeli airstrikes and incursions targeting rocket squads. Thousands of the crude rockets have landed in southern Israel, killing 12 people over the past seven years and disrupting the lives of thousands of residents.
In violence Thursday, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian policeman who was driving with a wanted militant in his car, Palestinian officials said. They said the shooting took place after a brief chase.
The undercover soldiers dressed in civilian clothes shot the policeman, but the Islamic Jihad militant in the car with him escaped unharmed, they said.
The army said troops shot a man who drew a pistol when they approached.