World

Can hope triumph over Mideast experience?

President George W. Bush, center, flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, wave in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.
President George W. Bush, center, flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, wave in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

JERUSALEM — The Wednesday morning newspapers trumpeting the latest fresh start toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians hadn't hit American doorsteps when the first crude Qassam rocket of the day soared out of the Gaza Strip and into southern Israel.

Before lunch, Palestinian Authority police in the West Bank were using truncheons to break up angry mourners trying to bury a demonstrator who was killed a day earlier while protesting the new peace initiative.

By the time Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas joined President Bush in the Rose Garden to launch the latest round of negotiations, an Israeli airstrike had killed two naval police officers in the Gaza Strip, where the militant Islamist group Hamas seized military control in June after winning U.S.-backed elections in January.

Things could have been worse on a day that was supposed to celebrate the beginning of a yearlong march to peace. But Wednesday's events were a reminder that facts on the ground in the Middle East usually trump expectations in Washington.

"I expect peace talks will go on for a few months, maybe two or three or four months and then they will stop," said Iyad Ibrahim, an Abbas supporter and computer engineer in the Gaza Strip. "There will be some Israeli operation or attack from Hamas."

Few people in Israel or the Palestinian territories had high hopes for this week's Annapolis summit, but the agreement between Abbas and Olmert to try and forge a peace deal by the end of 2008 generated some cautious optimism.

At the White House, Bush met again Wednesday with Abbas and Olmert and called the Annapolis declaration a "hopeful beginning."

"No matter how important yesterday was," the president said, "it's not nearly as important as tomorrow and the days beyond."

Although Bush promised that the United States "will be actively engaged in the process," the American role tomorrow and in the days ahead is unclear, beyond a vague promise to monitor and judge whether Israel and the Palestinians are living up to their commitments.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the appointment of retired Marine Gen. James Jones to be her special envoy for Middle East security, help Israelis and Palestinians deal with security issues and reach out to neighbors such as Egypt.

But in a land where experience almost always triumphs over hope, few people expect the two leaders and their American shepherds to succeed.

"This is a total deception," said Zakaria al Qaq, vice president for external affairs at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. "They are going to meet and meet and meet, but I think I will meet you in Christmas 2008, and we can look at the harvest. I don't think it will produce any result."

News of the initiative had barely begun to emerge when Israeli leaders began casting doubt on its prospects, a time-honored method of jockeying for position in Mideast negotiations.

Hours before Olmert set out for the White House, anonymous Israeli sources in Washington were telling reporters that there'd be no peace deal by the end of next year.

"The Palestinians started the negotiations with us with the demand that here in Annapolis we declare huge historic Israeli compromises and that Israel declare that within six months we will sign a permanent settlement," a member of Israel's delegation told Ma'ariv newspaper. "In the end, we arrived at a declaration that involves almost no Israeli concessions."

Neither Palestinian militants nor Israel's military made any concessions to the new peace talks, either.

By early Thursday morning, Palestinians had fired 20 mortar rounds and two rudimentary Qassam rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. The rockets caused little damage, but the mortar fire helped halt the first attempt in months to export Gaza Strip goods.

Israeli forces responded with an airstrike that killed two Hamas naval police officers, wounded five other Palestinians and brought exports from Gaza to a halt. Israeli border guards turned back a line of trucks filled with Palestinian strawberries and flowers bound for Europe because of mortar fire in the area, and only a few trucks were able to cross before the process came to a halt.

In the West Bank city of Hebron, Hamas activists sought for the second day to challenge a ban on anti-Annapolis protests that Abbas had imposed. But Palestinian police loyal to Abbas broke up an angry funeral march for a demonstrator who was killed on Tuesday in a clash with the same forces.

For some, the day's events made the ceremonial optimism in Washington seem detached from reality.

"I don't think people are looking at it as something credible," said Qaq. "I think this came late and without taste and without a dynamic that will produce anything."

(Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem and Strobel from Washington. McClatchy special correspondents Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem and Ahmed Abu Hamdan in Gaza City contributed to this report.)

  Comments