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Palestinian official: Little substance in Bush statement

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  • "Nothing new" in Bush's opening statement, Palestinian adviser says
  • Palestinian official says he's "impressed" with Bush's presentation at talks
  • Declaration doesn't reflect difficulty of negotiations, officials say
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From Suzanne Malveaux
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Israeli-Palestinian statement read by President Bush at the start of Tuesday's peace summit in Annapolis, Maryland, amounted to a "public relations gimmick," said a legal adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

President Bush, center, meets Tuesday with leaders Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Ehud Olmert.

Ghaith al-Omari, who attended the conference, said the days following the conference "could change everything."

"The statement has a shelf life of two days," he said. "There's nothing new in it. Events will happen in the next two days that could change everything."

While al-Omari stressed the one-day conference gave him optimism about future negotiations, he said much of Tuesday was about stagecraft.

Diplomats from both delegations, including al-Omari, scrambled early Tuesday to piece together the statement. The final wording was approved only minutes before Bush's 11 a.m. address, in which he announced the agreement to reporters and diplomats, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

In the statement, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to "immediately launch" talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and they hope to conclude talks by 2009.

"The document is as bland as people predicted it would be," noted a member of the Palestinian delegation, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak.

"Success or failure will happen in the next couple of months," the delegate said.

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Al-Omari said U.S. officials pushed for the joint statement because they felt they needed something "concrete" to prove "negotiations can proceed."

But the adviser said many in the Palestinian delegation felt the discussions were concrete enough without the statement.

Perino said that while having a document wasn't "critical to the meeting ... by having the document, it helped define ... the launch of the negotiations, which then helps define the success of the conference, so that others wouldn't define it for them."

Al-Omari and other Palestinian officials who helped fashion the joint declaration said the statement that arose from compromise included mentioning a timeline for establishing a peace agreement -- something the Israelis did not want.

That statement did not mention the details of the Arab Peace Initiative -- something al-Omari said the Palestinians were pushing for. The initiative includes specifics on the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Al-Omari said the Israelis dropped their demand calling for a "Jewish state" in the joint declaration two days ago.

Arabs and Palestinians have opposed calling Israel a Jewish state because, they say, it would preclude many Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel, and the label fails to account for thousands of Arabs living there.

Several Palestinians officials involved in the negotiations, but not authorized to speak about it publicly, said the reality of the difficult task ahead is not reflected in the joint declaration.

"We agreed to shorten it and keep it broad. To outline the general goals. While the Israelis wanted to avoid any mention of a timetable, we felt including many details would not enhance the goal of two states. Sanity prevailed. It was not worth the headache negotiating over language."

Another Palestinian official expressed hope that this time negotiations with the Israelis may prove fruitful because Bush is more convincing and more involved in the process.

"Bush was very emphatic -- 'I'm in this, I'm committed to this.' "

The official said he gave several reasons to the Palestinian delegation for his commitment to the process, most of them focusing on "spreading peace, fighting terrorism, and national security."

Bush also stressed that Mideast peace "was good for the U.S.," according to the official.

The official said the delegation was "impressed with his presentation."

"He was very tough on terrorism and extremism," he said.


Another member of the Palestinian delegation also expressed optimism that the U.S. leader would be more engaged in the peace process.

"At least as a third party, he has enough national and personal incentive to follow this issue more seriously than in the past," the official said. "There's a strategic threat to (the) U.S. and the Mideast which has diluted the skepticism." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Middle East ConflictEhud OlmertMahmoud Abbas

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