Palestinians, Israelis receive invitations to peace conference in Annapolis

President George W. Bush issued formal invitations on Tuesday to the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis next week, Palestinian and Israeli officials said. The November 27 conference in Maryland is intended to relaunch negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with a view to reaching an agreement on establishing a Palestinian state, possibly before Bush steps down in 14 months.

But officials from the two sides and US diplomats working closely with them have yet to produce even an agreement on roughly how such negotiations are likely to proceed following the conference next Tuesday.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will attend, along with representatives of other governments.

Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdainah pre-empted an expected formal announcement from Washington by saying that the Palestinian leader had received his invitation from Bush. Negotiators drafting a joint document on how peace talks might move forward will continue working until one was ready, he added.

Olmert’s spokeswoman also said an invitation was received.

Abbas is pushing for a clear deadline for establishing a Palestinian state while Israel says any final deal must be conditional on guarantees of security for the Jewish state.

Both sides have reaffirmed their commitments to the so-called “road map” for peace sponsored by Washington, which obliges Palestinians to act immediately to rein in militants who attack Israel and Israel to stop contructing settlements in the Occupied West Bank.

Annapolis is likely to see more affirmations of those goals, although Israel remains skeptical of Abbas’ ability to provide security – notably since his forces lost control of the Gaza Strip in June to Hamas. Palestinians say Israel’s occupation undermines efforts to establish order and complain that settlement activity is continuing apace.

The joint document negotiators are working on is intended to address in general terms “core” issues for a peace treaty, such as borders, the future of Jerusalem and millions of Palestinian refugees, without offering specific solutions.

Arab foreign ministers will meet in Cairo Thursday to consider a joint position with Abbas. Wider Arab support will give Abbas some cover from his critics, such as Hamas.

Olmert traveled to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak to rally Arab support for next week’s conference, telling him that a peace deal with the Palestinians can be signed within a year.

It was the closest Olmert has come to providing a firm timetable for a peace deal, as the Palestinians have demanded.

“I want the Arab nations to know that the negotiations will tackle all the main issues,” Olmert said. He also he would take into account a Saudi-sponsored Arab peace plan – a key concern of Arab states.

Israel has reacted cautiously to the plan, which offers full peace in return for a full withdrawal from all lands Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.Olmert said any deal must be based on the road map.

“There will be no implementation of the [peace] agreement before the road map commitments are fully implemented. These commitments apply to Gaza as well,” he said.

The road map also requires Israel to freeze all construction of Occupied West Bank settlements – a step it has refused to take. Some 270,000 Israelis live in illegal settlements, in addition to 180,000 Israelis in Occupied East Jerusalem.

Mubarak said the conference would be a “beginning for serious negotiations” but should ensure the talks “include all the issues of the final situation within a time limit” with a mechanism to monitor progress.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday lashed out at the conference, as he met with the Syrian foreign minister, state media reported.

“This meeting will result only in losses for the Palestinians,” Ahmadinejad said. “The organizers of this conference aim to connect all the Arab countries to the Zionist regime.”

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