SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reached out to reluctant Arab nations Tuesday for their support of an upcoming U.S.-brokered Mideast peace conference, saying a peace deal with the Palestinians could be reached in 2008.
After talks with Egypt's leader, Olmert said negotiations launched at next week's gathering would address all issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and take into account a Saudi-sponsored Arab peace initiative — two key concerns of Arab states.
Arab countries have been reluctant to commit to attending the conference in Annapolis, Md., unless it tackles the tough issues that have blocked the establishment of a Palestinian state in past talks. Olmert's comments aimed at assuring Arab nations that even if the conference does not do so, the ensuing negotiations will.
Olmert in the past had said only that he hoped to make serious strides toward a peace deal before President Bush leaves office in January 2009. He went further Tuesday, saying, "I very much hope we can reach this agreement in the course of 2008."
However, Olmert signaled that such a deal could not be implemented right away, implying that the Palestinians' West Bank leadership would first have to wrest control of the Gaza Strip from the radical Hamas group.
He said Palestinian commitments to curb militant attacks "apply to Gaza as well."
"The Palestinians take for granted that Gaza is supposed to be part of the Palestinian state. So naturally, if it's part of the Palestinian state that must fight terror, that includes the Gaza Strip," he said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the conference would be a "beginning for serious negotiations ... I hope that it (the gathering) will succeed so negotiations can continue and we can reach an agreement in a year."
Egypt suggested on Monday that it would send its foreign minister to the talks. And Mubarak said he believed that Syria — which has not committed to attending — would send its foreign minister as well. "I think he will come," Mubarak said.
Another key Arab country, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, has also not indicated if it will attend, or at what level.
Olmert reached out to Arab countries, saying a peace initiative originally proposed by Saudi Arabia but now endorsed by the Arab League is held "in great esteem" by Israel and would in 2008 "surely make a significant contribution toward a solution between us and the Palestinian people."
"I want the Arab nations to know that the negotiations will tackle all the main issues," Olmert said. "We won't try to avoid any problem or overlook any issue."
Olmert's meeting with Mubarak came after the Israeli leader had failed to bridge gaps in a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel and the Palestinians have been unable to meet their goal of reaching a joint blueprint for peace talks for presentation at the conference. The deadlock is likely to influence the Arab League when its members meet on Friday to decide whether and at what level to attend.
The conference is designed as a launching pad for formal negotiations, which broke down in violence seven years ago. Ahead of the meeting, its U.S. hosts have been pressuring both sides to fulfill initial obligations under the recently revived peace plan known as the road map.
In its first phase, the road map calls on Israel to freeze all construction in West Bank settlements, and requires the Palestinians to crack down on armed groups.
But on Monday, Israel stopped short of declaring a total halt to settlement activity, and Olmert did not address the issue in the news conference with Mubarak.
Palestinian efforts to rein in gunmen also were dealt a setback when gunmen affiliated with Abbas' Fatah movement killed an Israeli settler. The shooting late Monday occurred in an area seen as a test case for the Palestinians' ability to impose law and order in the West Bank.
The same group also claimed responsibility for a failed infiltration attempt into southern Israel from Gaza in which two militants were killed by Israeli troops. Gaza is controlled by the Hamas militant group, and Abbas wields little control in the area, even over militants who support him.
On Monday, Olmert and Abbas had what an Abbas aide described as a difficult meeting, reflecting differences over all the main issues — final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees from the war that followed Israel's 1948 creation and Jewish West Bank settlements.
These differences have prevented agreement on a joint pre-conference document, much as they have scuttled decades of peace efforts.
In an attempt to soften the atmosphere, Israel's Cabinet agreed earlier Monday to free 441 of more than 9,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. The gesture fell short of Palestinian demands for the release of 2,000 inmates, including those who have served long sentences.