JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) - The EU’s top diplomat said on Tuesday an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was “doable” within nine months and that the issue of the Golan Heights should be addressed by a planned peace conference this month.
Syria has made its attendance conditional on the conference agenda including the Golan Heights, captured from it by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. The talks on Palestinian statehood are slated for the last week of November in Annapolis, Maryland.
U.S. President George W. Bush called for the conference to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the long-stalled peace process after Hamas Islamists seized the Gaza Strip in June, and Israel has resisted adding Golan to the agenda.
The conference may also be a chance for the Bush administration to turn its legacy around from the unpopular war in Iraq.
“What we have in mind now is to finish the (Israeli-Palestinian) agreement after Annapolis in, let’s say, eight, nine months -- during the period of time in which the administration, the present American administration, will stay in power,” the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, told Reuters in the West Bank town of Jericho.
“It’s doable. It requires political will. It requires effort. It’s not easy. But it’s doable,” Solana said.
It is unclear how a deal would be implemented with the Palestinian territories divided between Hamas ruling Gaza and Abbas’s Fatah faction dominating the occupied West Bank. Seven people died on Monday in gunfire at a Fatah rally in Gaza.
Solana acknowledged growing tensions between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators struggling to narrow differences over a joint document to be presented at the conference.
The document is meant to address in general terms issues like borders and the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, and serve as a starting point for formal statehood negotiations slated for after the Annapolis conference.
Palestinian negotiators have told Western diplomats in recent days they were increasingly pessimistic differences over the document could be bridged, casting doubt on the willingness of key Arab states like Saudi Arabia to attend.
“We’re at a very important moment,” Solana said. “As we approach the beginning of the process, there will be some tensions. But I’m sure that this is going to be overcome.”
The main session of the Annapolis conference is expected to be held on November 27 and last one day, Israeli officials said.
A U.S. official, who spoke on condition that he not be named, said there could be related events before or afterwards.
Diplomats had initially expected a two-day gathering.
In addition to the joint document, the conference will focus on bolstering Palestinian governing institutions and expanding international involvement in the moribund Palestinian economy, issues spearheaded by Middle East envoy Tony Blair, Israeli officials briefed on the agenda said.
Asked if it was time to revive Israeli-Syrian peacemaking, Solana said: “We have to concentrate now on the track which is moving, which is the Palestinian track, without forgetting that peace will not be achieved until all the tracks are moving, that includes, of course, the Syrian and the Lebanese tracks.”
Solana said he hoped the Annapolis conference would issue a statement in “that direction”.
Israel plans to release several hundred Palestinian prisoners before the conference as a gesture to Abbas, Israeli officials said, far short of the 2,000 figure proposed by Abbas.
Though leaders on both sides have said they hoped to be able to reach agreements before Bush leaves office in January 2009, Israel says implementation will not begin until the Palestinians dismantle militant groups as called for under the long-stalled “road map” peace plan.
After touring a training facility for the Palestinian police, Solana said: “I have no doubt that they will accomplish that. As a matter of fact, many of the issues which are contemplated in the first phase of the ‘road map’ the Palestinians are already complying with.”
Editing by Charles Dick
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