Israelis, Palestinians Doubt Peace Talks

This week's Middle East Peace Conference in Annapolis, Maryland, doesn't seem to have changed perceptions among the Israelis or Palestinians. Both sides remain divided over whether the conference will lead to anything.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As complicated and slow as a Blackwater prosecution may be, it's a simple matter compared to the effort to find Middle East peace.

Israelis and Palestinians are seldom in agreement, but the majority on both sides seem to say they have little faith in this week's Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. They have little faith that it will lead to a peace agreement. Each side says they want peace and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve it, but doubt the other side is serious.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports on the aftermath of the first formal Israeli-Palestinian meeting in nearly seven years.

LINDA GRANDSTEIN: At the Hawara checkpoint, just outside the West Bank city of Nablus, dozens of taxi drivers stand waiting for fares.

Raja Aweis(ph) from a nearby village says he doubts the Annapolis conference will change much.

Mr. RAJA AWEIS: (Through translator) When Israel starts implementing the agreements on the ground, then we will believe that these agreements make sense. For example, when Israel removes these checkpoints, then we will see. When the right of return is discussed, then we will see. We need to see concrete results.

GRADSTEIN: Another driver, Jamal Hassan(ph), is even more pessimistic.

Mr. JAMAL HASSAN (Driver): (Through translator) What happened yesterday was like any other conference - declarations, media operations, and no more than that.

GRADSTEIN: Nothing will change, he says, because Israel is in control of the West Bank and is not serious about peace. The Annapolis conference also brought to the fore ongoing disputes between the Islamist Hamas movement, which seized control of Gaza last June and opposes any peace deal with Israel, and the Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

In Gaza, tens of thousands of Palestinians demonstrated against the Annapolis conference. In the West Bank, several thousand came out despite a ban by the Palestinian Authority on demonstrations. In Hebron, one Hamas supporter was killed when Fatah forces opened fire; several others were wounded.

At Annapolis, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the implementation of any peace deal is dependent on Fatah retaking control of Gaza, and both Israeli and Palestinian analysts say it's hard to see how that will happen. Israeli officials also say they're not willing to withdraw from any Palestinian towns in the West Bank until they're sure the Palestinian forces can take responsibility for security there.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GRADSTEIN: On the Israeli side, any peace deal would put Olmert on a collision course with the 270,000 Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem.

Rachel Heller Bernstein(ph), a grandmother of 18 who was wounded in a Palestinian bombing of a Jerusalem supermarket, said Olmert is making a mistake by pursuing a negotiated settlement.

Ms. RACHEL HELLER BERNSTEIN: The two-state solution will never work because the Arabs cannot be trusted. They have proven this in history time and again; they have never kept their word.

GRADSTEIN: Many of the demonstrators here said that Israel has already tried giving up land for a peace deal with the Palestinians, and it was a complete failure. Two years ago, Israel dismantled all of the settlements in Gaza and turned the area over to the Palestinian Authority. Now, they said, rocket fire from Gaza has only intensified.

Olmert also has political difficulties in moving forward. Two right-wing parties say they will pull out of his coalition if he makes any concessions. The leader of one of those parties, Avigdor Lieberman, told Israel television the Annapolis conference produced nothing.

Mr. AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN (Yisrael Beiteinu Party): What we saw in Annapolis, it was only declarations. And we expect for more results that we can see and we can feel, not only declarations. It was a big show, but without any results.

GRADSTEIN: A new poll published today shows many Israelis agree with him. Only 17 percent of the Israeli public thought Annapolis achieved anything, while 42 percent called it a waste of time. At the same time, more than half of Israelis say they would support a peace deal that includes a Palestinian state.

But at least some Israelis continue to be optimistic. Cabinet minister Isaac Herzog told Israel television that talking is better than fighting.

Mr. ISAAC HERZOG (Tourism Minister, Israel): It's a start of a process. We don't know how this process will succeed or not succeed; we definitely look at the last seven years of darkness and see a small ray of light.

GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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