"Under the current circumstances, we have a partner and we are not willing to postpone the negotiations with the Palestinians to a time when this partner may not be able to fulfill the task," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday in a speech before the Saban Forum in Jerusalem.
"We shall not negotiate Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, or the Palestinians people's right to their own state," Olmert stressed, referring to the talks ahead of the upcoming US-sponsored peace conference.
"Annapolis will not be an arena for negotiations, but it will certainly be a starting point for the real effort to realize the two-state vision," he added.
The prime minister said that the Israeli government was aware of the weakness of the Palestinian leadership, but stated that, "Mahmoud Abbas – the Palestinian Authority's president, and Salam Fayyad – the prime minister, declare publicly and without hesitation… that they want to live side by side in peace. This is an opportunity and it must be seized."
Olmert claimed that the Palestinians were committed to fighting terror. "We will not let the Palestinian neglect their duties, as stipulated in the road map for peace, or shirk our responsibilities," he said.
According to the prime minister, the two sides will engage in rigorous talks immediately after the Annapolis summit, and some concrete achievements may be obtained even before President George W. Bush's term in office ends at the end of 2008.
Rice: It's time to take chances for peace
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who also spoke at the event, said that it was vital for the US to support the moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority that were making an effort to fight terror.
Rice said that now was the time to take chances for peace, and called on the Arab states to actively strive for peace with Israel. She stated that both sides have waited too long for a resolution to the conflict, adding that painful sacrifices would have to be made both by Israel and the Palestinian.
Another speaker, the Quartet's envoy to the Middle East Tony Blair, said the Annapolis conference should serve as platform for a Palestinian state, and that the international community should support the process.