Scepticism greets Middle East peace push

Hardened by numerous past peace drives gone sour, Israelis and Palestinians remained wary in the wake of the announcements at the international conference in the US city of Annapolis.

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After Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas agreed to relaunch negotiations to seek a comprehensive agreement by late 2008, reactions ranged from downright cynicism to cautious optimism.

Doubts run high about the two leaders' ability to deliver on any promises given their domestic weaknesses.

Abbas's writ has been effectively limited to the West Bank since Hamas seized power in Gaza in June, and Olmert heads a coalition whose members are threatening to quit if he makes concessions on core issues.

“Making Peace for the Cameras,” read a headline in the Israeli tabloid Maariv.

“Peace ceremonies are usually held after peace (is reached),” wrote the daily's leading political commentator. “Yesterday at Annapolis, the order was reversed.”

“First they made a ceremony, with all the requisite pomp and circumstance, and now let's make peace,” he wrote. “If the huge expectations that were built up yesterday following the president's speech are dashed, we stand to face a serious disaster.”

The mass-selling Yediot Aharonot chose a less pessimistic label, splashing “A New Beginning” in a front-page banner headline.

But referring to the pledge to work toward a final deal by the end of 2008, it said: “Only a miracle can complete it within a year.”

Neda Honaitee, a 26-year-old Palestinian resident of the West Bank city of Ramallah, echoed the sentiment.

“There was nothing new in Annapolis, just speeches,” she said. “I am sure there won't be any progress. All of our lives we just see conferences without any results.”

Khalida Jarar, a leader of the Palestine Front for the Liberation of

Palestine, said: “What happened yesterday was just a speech festival… Any negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians will go in the same circle as it has been since Oslo.”

Maher Unis, a taxi driver in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, said the success of the Annapolis meeting will depend on whether Israel backs up its promises with actions to ease restrictions on the Palestinians.

“Our people not only want speeches and slogans and conferences, but they want results on the ground,” he said.

“If Israel removes the checkpoints around Nablus and if they release my son, who has been sentenced to 17 years in Israeli prisons, then I will say that the conferences succeeded.”

Said Abdullah Abdullah, an MP from Abbas's Fatah party: “Hope is still alive, if there were no hope we wouldn't have gone to Annapolis. But we can't say whether Annapolis was good or bad because we will wait to see results on the ground.”

For Israeli settlers, Annapolis could signal an ominous turn of events.

“We are heading toward a catastrophe,” said Hannah Picard, fearing that Olmert would make good on his vow not to build any new settlements and to dismantle ones not authorised by the Israeli government.

But despite the caution, some struck a cautiously optimistic note.

“An encouraging start in Annapolis,” wrote the Palestinian daily Al Quds.