JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday played down expectations for a peace agreement with the Palestinians by the end of next year - the target set at a U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference last week.
Olmert's remarks came at the first meeting of his cabinet after the conference in Annapolis, Md., and appeared to be a signal to his rightist coalition partners that he is not rushing into a deal or planning concessions without reciprocal moves by the Palestinians.
Leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and rightist Yisrael Beiteinu faction have warned that they could bolt the coalition and topple the government if Olmert negotiated core issues of the conflict with the Palestinians, such as the status of Jerusalem, borders, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
"An effort will be made to hold accelerated negotiations with the hope that it will be possible to conclude them in 2008, but there is certainly no commitment to rigid timetables regarding these negotiations," Olmert said in remarks at the opening of the cabinet session.
"The most important thing in the joint statement [reached at the conference] . . . is that implementation of any settlement and agreement that we arrive at in the future will be subject to completing all the commitments of the road map," Olmert said, referring to a U.S.-sponsored plan outlining steps toward a peace agreement.
"In other words, Israel will not have to carry out any commitment stemming from the agreement before all of the road map commitments are kept," he said.
The road map requires Israel to freeze settlement activity and dismantle unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank.
It requires the Palestinians to disarm militant groups that attack Israel - a task that will be hard for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to carry out so long as Islamic Hamas extremists rule the Gaza Strip. Hamas wrested control of the territory from forces loyal to Abbas in June. Abbas' writ runs only in the West Bank.
Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nunu said Olmert's statement showed Israel had nothing to offer the Palestinians.
The joint understanding read at the Annapolis conference by President Bush said that the two sides would "make every effort" to negotiate a peace treaty, covering all core issues, by the end of 2008.
It said that implementation of the treaty would be subject to carrying out the road map and that the United States would be the judge if both sides were keeping their commitments under the plan.
The Israeli cabinet endorsed the Annapolis joint statement, but reservations about it were also heard from members of Olmert's Kadima party, according to Israeli media reports of the meeting.
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, a member of Kadima, reportedly said that Israel should not negotiate core issues of the conflict before making sure that the Palestinians were "keeping their end of the bargain by fighting terror and establishing a proper law enforcement system."