THE optimism of Annapolis was noticeably absent from yesterday's meeting between Israel and the Palestinians, the first since President Bush's great peace gathering last month and, incidentally, the first formal peace talks between the two sides in seven years. There was one result from the meeting -- an agreement that there should be another in two week's time. That apart nothing was achieved beyond some accusatory exchanges. The Israelis demanded a halt to rocket attacks from Gaza and the Palestinians demanded a stop to settlement building. So two weeks have already been lost from the fifty-two or so available to settle all the problems of the Israeli-Palestian dispute by the end of President Bush's presidency. The talks took place one day after Israel mounted one of its biggest military raids on Gaza and warned that it would have to undertake a “big operation” if the rocket firings do not stop. The Palestinian militants are firing rockets in protest against Israel's occupation of their land. The rights and wrongs of these tit-for-tat actions can be argued endlessly. But in the case of the 300 new homes being built by Israel at Har Homa near Bethlehem the issue is clear; they are being built illegally on occupied land. It is difficult to see how productive talks can take place while Israel ignores Palestinian and American criticism of this settlement activity. Not a promising start.


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