Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to try to reach a final status peace agreement with Israel by the end of the year but he admitted the goal, set by US President George W Bush, might not be achieved.
Abbas also rejected the notion that he and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might put forth a partial document outlining the areas in which they do agree and leaving open other issues most notably, and most explosively, the sharing of Jerusalem as a joint capital. "It is necessary for the agreement to address all issues," Abbas said on Friday at the Ambrosetti Forum, an annual gathering of global political and business leaders in this Italian lakeside resort. "It is all or nothing, really."
Abbas and Olmert and their negotiating teams have held periodic, secretive meetings since peace talks were restarted at Annapolis, Maryland, last November.
Palestinian officials close to the talks have said some progress has been made on the issue of borders, but the issue of Jerusalem, especially the walled Old City with its Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, appears as stuck as ever.
The sides also have been unable to come up with a formula addressing the plight of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
In recent weeks, Israeli media have reported that Olmert is interested in publishing a partial document especially in light of his pending exit from the country's leadership, undone by a series of corruption scandals.
Olmert's Kadima party is holding a leadership primary without him this month, and he has vowed to step down as soon as the new party leader can form a coalition government. The sense of urgency is compounded by polls in Israel showing the less accommodating rightist Likud opposition would likely win the election many are predicting will result from the mayhem in Kadima. Asked about this, Abbas sidestepped the issue. "We might not be able to reach a final status agreement by the end of the year," he said. "We will make all possible efforts." Abbas said if no agreement was reached while Bush remained in office, "the new administration should not wait seven years for us to start negotiations" an allusion to Palestinians' sense that Bush did not press Israel to negotiate for years. "It should begin immediately as soon as a new president is in the White House."
Abbas appeared with Israeli President Shimon Peres by his side. Peres, for decades a champion of peacemaking, has used his largely ceremonial role and his stature as an elder statesman to push the peace efforts.
"We have to try to reach agreement," Peres said. "We have to act on the supposition that it is possible."
Peres also urged progress with Syria, which is currently engaged in indirect talks with Israel via Turkish mediation. He called for Syrian president Bashar Assad to make a personal gesture similar to the dramatic 1977 Jerusalem visit by Anwar Sadat of Egypt, which led to a peace agreement in 1979.
"I think if President Assad will create a visit to Israel or alternatively invite the prime minister of Israel to go to Damascus we shall see a major change," he said. "I believe the best way is to start with a meeting and then have negotiations. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, wrangled with Peres over a 2002 proposal by Arab nations to make peace with Israel on the condition that all the lands Arabs consider occupied are returned in full.
"The problem is it wasn't proposed to the Arabs directly to the Israelis" but rather presented to the world as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, said Peres, who was Israel's foreign minister at the time. "There is no replacement for negotiations."
Moussa viewed matters differently, arguing that no Israeli government agreed even to respond positively to elements of the proposal.
Abbas, whose people have sometimes fretted that prioritizing wider Mideast agreements might leave the Palestinians in the cold, said he would support Israeli progress with Syria or other Arab nations.
"Possible success for those negotiations could facilitate peace for us, too," he said. If the Arab League proposal were adopted, he said, "27 Islamic states would proceed with peace with Israel." "Israel would be in an ocean of peeace".