Diplomats sceptical of U.S.-backed Mideast talks

Russia’s Foreign Minister has joined hundreds of leaders and diplomats from 40 countries in the U.S. city of Annapolis to hopefully hammer out a deal, which could finally see a Palestinian state established. The talks will also focus on Jerusalem’s status

One of the highlights of the talks will be President George Bush’s meeting both the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. The U.S. President has held separate meetings with each of them ahead of the conference.

Is a breakthrough possible?

The Palestinians and the Israelis are determined to appear optimistic, even though the expectations are so low that diplomats have shied away from calling it a ‘peace conference’.

“We have a great deal of hope that this meeting will produce permanent status negotiations that would lead to a comprehensive peace agreement,” President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas said.

Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert also appears to be optimistic.

“This time it's different, because we are going to have a lots of participants in what I hope will launch a serious process of negotiations,” he said.

Both sides say they are ready for the “final negotiations”. Their stated aim is a new Palestinian state alongside Israel.

In the best case scenario, Annapolis is the first, but most important step.

“This is the culmination of years of work to create the legal foundation for the resolution of the Palestinian question,” Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister said. He also noted the importance of major regional players such as Syria and Lebanon attending the meeting.

“We propose to hold a conference in Moscow in next year or year after,”Shamil Sultanov, a State Duma deputy and a member of the Committee on International Relations said in his interview for Russia Today.

No concessions

Despite hopes voiced by some leaders, there are concessions neither side will make.

Israel does not want to let Jerusalem become the Palestinian capital. It will not allow millions of Palestinian refugees to return.

And Israeli settlers living on what is to become Palestine will not be driven out. Last time that happened, Palestinian radicals merely moved up their frontline. Ehud Olmert lacks the political clout to overcome those Israelis sceptical of Palestinian intentions. And so does his counterpart.

Mahmoud Abbas is a convenient negotiator for the Israelis, but he does not speak for all of his people.

The radical Islamists Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, are still in control of Gaza after a violent coup. Abbas's concessions at Annapolis may be perceived as a sign of weakness even by his own supporters in the West Bank.