Israeli and Palestinian leaders opened a US-brokered summit Tuesday with a vague pledge to reach a peace deal by the end of next year. The joint statement does not set a binding time line. It also avoids a firm stance on the core final-status issues of Israeli settlements, borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. President Bush read the agreement in a morning ceremony.
President Bush: "In furtherance of the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, we agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues, without exception, as specified in previous agreements. We agree to engage in vigorous ongoing and continuous negotiations and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008."
The summit continues today with a White House meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert has already announced he won’t discuss core issues until after the summit. But Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat welcomed the first formal talks in nearly seven years.
Saab Erekat: "It’s not going to be an easy road. It’s going to be a long, difficult road. Issues of Jerusalem — borders, settlements, refugees, security — is what make Palestinians and Israelis breathe."
The ousted Hamas-led government has been excluded from the meetings. As the talks began, more than 100,000 people rallied in Gaza in a show of opposition. In a televised speech, dismissed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Hamas would not accept a deal abandoning Palestinian rights.
Ismail Haniyeh: "Any concessions to be made by the Palestinian negotiating team that harms the constant rights of our people will not be binding to our people, and the coming generations will bear no responsibility or obligation toward these concessions.”
In Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf has officially stepped down as head of the military. Musharraf passed over control at a ceremony earlier today. The move comes weeks into his crackdown on domestic opposition. Musharraf has dismissed several judges, imposed curbs on the media, and jailed thousands of opponents. He is set to be sworn in to a new five-year presidential term on Thursday.
In Afghanistan, at least fourteen construction workers have been killed in a US-led air strike. The victims had been building a road for the US military in Nuristan province. They were asleep in their tents when NATO warplanes opened fire. NATO officials blamed faulty intelligence for the attack.
The private military contractor Blackwater Worldwide has been hit with a new lawsuit over the September killings of seventeen Iraqis in Baghdad. Filed this week in US District Court, the suit accuses Blackwater guards of ignoring orders and company officials of failing to administer drug tests. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, new evidence shows Blackwater guards had already dropped off the US official they were guarding when they opened fire. The suit says the guards defied orders to remain with the official and instead headed to Nisoor Square, where the shooting later took place. The plaintiffs also accuse Blackwater of routinely sending guards on missions despite knowing at least one-quarter have used steroids or other “judgment-altering substances.”
The United Nations is warning of irreversible environmental catastrophe unless drastic changes are made. In a new report, the UN Human Development agency says carbon emissions need to be cut by at least half over the next several decades. Climate disasters affected more than 260 million people between 2000 and 2004. Ninety-eight percent of them were in the developing world. Lead report author Kevin Watkins said the onus is on the world’s richest nations.
Kevin Watkins: "It is not the world’s poor that have the deepest carbon footprint, and yet it is the world’s poor who will pay the highest price of our inaction if we fail to tackle the crisis while we still have an opportunity. That would be a double injustice."
A major UN climate summit convenes next month in Bali, Indonesia.
Back in the United States, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois has officially stepped down. Hastert’s resignation came the same day as another veteran Republican, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, announced his departure by the end of the year.
And the Supreme Court has rejected a challenge to warrantless searches of the homes of welfare recipients. The American Civil Liberties Union had accused San Diego County of violating privacy rights. But the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling approving the searches. The court had OKed the searches on grounds county officials are not seeking evidence of crimes but determining welfare eligibility. The ACLU says the policy violates Fourth Amendment rights banning unreasonable searches and seizures. A group of dissenting judges have called the searches an attack on the poor.