Olmert, Abbas end seven-year silence

World leaders at the Middle East conference in the U.S. are to end a seven-year stalemate and resume peace talks. U.S. President Bush has announced that the Israelis and the Palestinians have agreed to “make every effort” to reach agreement be

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have agreed to the first formal direct talks in seven years.

At the peace conference in Annapolis, Bush revealed that negotiations to establish a Palestinian state would begin next month.

The 44 nation conference is being attended by 14 Arab states as well as major powers including Russia and the U.K.

Biweekly meetings

Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert said “the time has come, we want peace”.

“These negotiations will be bilateral, direct, ongoing and continuous in an effort to complete the process in the course of 2008. They will address all of the issues which we have so far avoided dealing with,” Olmert noted.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said any peace deal should ensure the Palestinians have East Jerusalem as their capital. He also underlined that other disputed issues should not be underestimated.

“We have to support this negotiating process and concrete and direct steps on the ground that would prove that we are moving towards negotiated, comprehensive and full peace,” Mahmoud Abbas stated.

Still, the symbolic handshake and the words of the two leaders were not backed by any agreement. Based on a joint statement, the two sides declared they will meet on a biweekly basis starting December 12.

Russia in the game

James Phillips, from the Douglas and Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, insists that direct talks between Olmert and Abbas are only a potential breakthrough, not one that has already been completed.

“Now their efforts are joined by broader international support, of which especially important is the presence of Presidents of many other Arabic countries. They didn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel,” Phillips said.

Phillips sees peace talks as a ‘long uphill road’, due to numerous obstacles, including Hamas.

All Israelis want peace, Mitchel Barak, a Middle East Political Analyst in Jerusalem, stated.

“Their main concern is the status of Jerusalem. Most Israelis don’t want it divided. Other questions are: ”Who Mahmoud Abbas represents?“, Will he be able to stop terrorism, backing peace talks with actual peace or will he be controlled by Hamas?” Barak commented.

“There is also another negative issue is the lack of support for the trio of main leaders in their own counties. In Israel two parties that are in coalition with Ehud Olmert, threaten to quit the government, insisting that the Jerusalem question is not for bargain,” Barak said.

He also called attention to Saudi Arabia’s leadership in uniting the Arabic nations and involving them in the peace talks.

“Russia’s stepping up is also very significant,” Barak added.

Protesters fill the streets

While high-level officials paid lip service to their commitment to peace, others took action. Protesters filled the streets of the Maryland capital. Small in numbers, they were nevertheless determined to say no to the politicians “playing the same stupid game”.

Locals were not the only ones critical of the event and its purpose. For the radical Islamist group Hamas, it was an attempt by the U.S. to isolate them from the peace process. Hamas also claimed the U.S. is using the banner of peace to mask a potential attack against Iran.

But in her closing remarks to the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not even mention Hamas or Iran.