Olmert: Real negotiations after Annapolis
In bid to lower expectations ahead of US peace summit, prime minister says at start of weekly cabinet meeting, 'The importance of the international gathering organized by the US president is great, but nonetheless, we must not read too much into it'. Foreign Minister Livni: The day after is the important thing
"The meeting will naturally be accompanied by disagreements and arguments, but the real negotiations will be held after Annapolis in order to bring an end to the conflict and to two states for two people."
The prime minister spoke at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, just before the government was set to approve the release of Palestinian prisoners and several hours before a meeting between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Monday's meeting was the last cabinet meeting before the US-sponsored Mideast peace conference and the ministers were to discuss the different aspects of the Annapolis summit.
Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu ministers were expected to oppose the plan to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinian Authority.
The prime minister was set to explain Israel's commitments according to the Road Map peace plan's first stage, which include freezing the construction of settlements and removing illegal outposts.
During the discussion, which was expected to be emotional, Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman planned to demand that the prime minister refrain from carrying out additional gestures to the Palestinians until they accept Israel's demand to recognize it as a Jewish state. Lieberman was also expected to ask the government to vote on this issue.
'Intensive talks after summit'
Olmert said at the start of the meeting, "We must not make too much of the Annapolis meeting and create exaggerated expectations, but we must also not underestimate the importance of the fact that the US president, along with the most important countries in the world, is initiating such a broad meeting.
"Naturally, the meeting will be accompanied by disagreements and arguments, otherwise we would have reached an agreement long ago. The fact is that there is a dispute and disagreement. We must reach an agreement on the procedural aspect and hold intensive negotiations after Annapolis which will lead to two states for two people.
"We will have to expresses out opinions, our expectations and are hopes and give them the right intensity and proportions for such a meeting."
Some of the government ministers are furious over the prime minister's plan to bring to the cabinet's approval the release of hundreds of Palestinians prisoners, including 20 security prisoners from the Gaza Strip.
Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch (Yisrael Beiteinu) stressed that he opposed the release of prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Abbas, as such gestures have not been helpful in the past. Minister Jacob Edery (Kadima), on the other hand, supports the release of prisoners from Gaza, saying that this is the right thing to do if it could bolster Abbas.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said before the cabinet meeting that the Annapolis conference was the place to set the diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians in motion.
"The fact that it is being held is important, but what is more important is the day after and the month after the negotiations, as well as the attempt to reach two states for the two people," she said.
Livni reiterated her remarks from Sunday regarding Israel's Arab citizens: "We are in the midst of a national conflict, and we are talking about two states for the two people. Israel is a democratic country.
"We must distinguish between the solution that should be given to every citizen in Israel and the national solution for the Palestinians, which is a Palestinian state. This is what I said yesterday, and I stand by this statement," the foreign minister said.
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, who also addressed the upcoming peace conference, said that "we must talk peace and I am for Annapolis. However, these meetings should be held here in the region. We should not travel with our problems to other places in the world. This is the problem of Israelis and Arabs, and we must meet and talk about it here, in the Middle East."
Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Abbas were expected to meet later Monday, on the backdrop of the negotiation teams' failure to reach an agreement on the wording of a joint statement for the conference.
Sources both in the Prime Minister's Office and in the Foreign Ministry said that there was no crisis in the talks, but a senior official in Jerusalem admitted that "even after three meetings between the negotiation teams in two days, there is no joint statement and not even a draft."