Israeli leader: Palestinian state may be independent before Bush’s term ends; Rice promises upcoming peace talks



By The Associated Press

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday vigorous peace negotiations could go far toward establishing an independent Palestinian state before President Bush leaves office. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised a “serious and substantive” launch to new talks.

“If we and the Palestinians act with determination, there is a chance that we can achieve real accomplishments” in the little more than a year Bush has left, Olmert told a gathering of scholars, leaders and former peace negotiators.

The Israeli leader did not say a final deal is possible in that time frame, although he affirmed that the practical goal of talks is an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Israel has been reluctant to set even a loose deadline for talks, but Olmert appeared to come closer to the Palestinian demand of a date certain for a separate state.

“There is no intention of dragging the negotiations on endlessly. There is no reason to suffer the same foot-dragging which previously characterized our discussions,” Olmert said.

Olmert’s government may have reason to want to secure the best deal it can now under U.S. auspices, for fear a Democrat less friendly to Israel’s security interests might be the next U.S. president.

Rice told the Brookings Institution gathering that she fears the consequences of waiting much longer because further humiliation and deprivation invites extremism among the Palestinians.

“If we do not act now to show the Palestinians a way forward, others will show them a way forward,” Rice said.

Rice promised that an upcoming U.S.-sponsored Mideast conference will be a “serious and substantive meeting.”

The meeting, expected before year’s end in Annapolis, Md., is intended to inaugurate a set of negotiations based on a written outline that Israeli and Palestinian officials are struggling to draft.

Earlier Sunday, Israel’s top negotiator acknowledged problems trying to frame the blueprint.

The two sides are at odds over whether the document should spell out ways to resolve issues that have derailed peace talks in the past. Those mainly are final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinians who became refugees after Israel’s creation in 1948.

The Palestinians want the document to mention the principle for solving each of those disputes, without deciding now on the details. Israel has been cool to addressing those central issues.

The Palestinians also insist on a deadline for peace talks even though earlier deadlines have been set and ignored.

“There is no tension in the meetings, there is a good atmosphere, in fact, but yes, there are problems,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said before meeting with Rice. Livni, Israel’s lead negotiator, did not elaborate. But her acknowledgment of problems was a departure from Israel’s past refusals to publicly discuss disputes with the Palestinians as they try to draft the joint platform.