SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – Israeli, Palestinian and international negotiators pledged Sunday to continue peace talks launched last year by President Bush, even though the quest for peace will certainly outlast his administration.
But future talks will be held in an increasingly uncertain terrain, with the prospect of a hawk coming to power in Israel's February parliamentary elections and deeply divided Palestinian factions controlling the West Bank and Gaza. It is also unclear how high Mideast peacemaking will figure on Barack Obama's agenda.
Despite the impending failure to meet the year-end target set at a November 2007 peace conference in Annapolis, Md., Israel and the Palestinians affirmed their commitment to the process.
The chief negotiators "asked that the international community support the parties' sustained efforts in the framework of the Annapolis process," the international diplomatic quartet of Mideast peacemakers said following several hours of talks at Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
At the same time, the Quartet — the United States, the United Nations, the EU and Russia — said in a joint statement that it "emphasized the importance of continuity of the peace process."
"I believe that the Annapolis process is now the international community's answer and the parties' answer to how we finally end the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters after the talks.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat praised Sunday's meeting as a positive step toward making the peace process irreversible. But he also said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, had warned Israel the next few months are a sensitive time.
"Abu Mazen has warned against the possibility of Israel using this transition period in Israel and the U.S. to accelerate settlement activity and attacks and incursions," said Erekat.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the country's chief peace negotiator, is running evenly with hawkish, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in polls to become the country's next prime minister.
Netanyahu's spokeswoman, Dina Libster, indicated Sunday the former prime minister would not continue the Annapolis process if he won.
"The process as it has been until now is not helpful, and there is no point in continuing with it," she said. "We are talking with a side that has no power to put into effect an agreement."
Libster was referring to the split between the main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas. Abbas, who leads Fatah and governs the West Bank, has been negotiating with Israel. But the militant Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, does not support the peace efforts.
Hamas announced Saturday that it was boycotting reconciliation talks with Fatah in Egypt.
It is also unclear whether Obama will prioritize the Mideast peace process, at a time when the U.S. president-elect must handle an economy in crisis and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Quartet envoy Tony Blair urged Obama on Sunday to carry on with the process, saying "the single most important thing is that the new administration in the United States grips this issue from day one."
Even Russia, which has increasingly butted heads with the U.S., called completing the process important.
"Our common desire is to make sure the Annapolis process succeeds," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Both sides have maintained a relatively tight veil of secrecy about the talks, which have continued despite serious disputes.
Palestinians are furious over continued Israeli construction on West Bank land they want for a future state. They had also expected Israel to take down hundreds of barriers across the West Bank that severely hamper the movement of Palestinian people and goods — a major strain on efforts to rebuild the ravaged Palestinian economy.
Israel says the barriers are necessary to keep Palestinian attackers out of Israel, charging that Palestinian security forces are not doing enough to rein in militants.