All the papers lead with yesterday's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to begin formal talks next month and pledged to "make every effort" to reach a deal by the end of 2008. The Los Angeles Timesis the most direct in declaring that the Israelis were the biggest winners of the meeting since they "came away with a greater share of what they were seeking." The New York Timesnotes that both sides agreed the success of this new peace process "will depend in part on how vigorously President Bush pushes Palestinians and Israelis."
USA Todaygoes high with a description of the Bush, Abbas, and Olmert handshakes and notes the "gesture … was reminiscent of President Clinton's maneuver on the South Lawn in 1993." The Wall Street Journal points out that "beyond relaunching peace talks, Mr. Bush offered little new, and the depth of American involvement remains unclear." The Washington Post hints that if yesterday's events are any indication, participants shouldn't hold their breath waiting for a lot of participation from Bush. The president "spent only three hours in Annapolis and left Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in charge of most of the one-day gathering."
Everyone notes that Palestinian and Israeli negotiators worked practically around the clock to come up with a joint statement that could be presented in Annapolis. And it wasn't clear until President Bush began speaking yesterday morning whether the two sides had been successful. The NYT notes that Bush read the statement "wearing his glasses, suggesting that there had not been enough time to convert the newly completed document to large type for his speech." The LAT says the statement wasn't finalized until 10:52 a.m., which was a mere eight minutes before Bush was scheduled to speak. The Post cites the French foreign minister saying that the two sides came together only after Bush got involved and pressed them to agree on something. In the end, the joint understanding was reached by merely "the watering down or elimination" (WP) of any controversial phrases, which is why it ended up being so vague and ultimately unimpressive.
In his speech, Abbas said the Middle East "stands at a crossroad that separates two historical phases: pre-Annapolis phase and post-Annapolis phase." But it seems the difficult decisions were left for the "post-Annapolis phase" as yesterday's joint agreement made no mention of the Big Issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians, including the fate of Jerusalem, the right of return of Palestinians, and the West Bank settlements, to name a few.
The two sides agreed to implement the road map, which was part of an earlier peace initiative, and, once again, the United States agreed to monitor its progress. The Post points out that unlike the previous initiative, which had described negotiations as a final phase of a multilayered process, talks would now begin right away. Besides appointing a senior military official to act as a consultant on security matters, it's still unclear how the monitoring will work. And, overall, the extent of U.S. involvement in the peace negotiations remains vague and the LAT emphasizes that the joint declaration "makes clear that the U.S. will not be part of the 'steering committee' that will launch the talks at next month's session."
Although most papers note that Iraq was invited but chose not to attend the conference, no one dedicates much space to explaining the strange absence.
Everyone agrees that, as a former U.S. ambassador to Israel tells USAT, "the key to Annapolis is what comes afterwards." The NYT's Thomas Friedman says there is an easy test everyone can follow to know whether the new peace talks will actually lead to something new. If, in the coming months, "you pick up the newspaper and see Arab and Israeli moderates doing things that surprise you … you'll know we're going somewhere," Friedman writes.
In other stories, the LAT catches late-breaking news that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf stepped down from his role as head of the army this morning. But even without his uniform, "Musharraf will still wield extraordinary powers" because of the de facto martial law that is still in place. Ashfaq Kiani will take Musharraf's place, and the WSJ goes inside with a look at how the former head of Pakistan's intelligence services will be able to dedicate himself full-time to combating al-Qaida and Taliban militants since he won't be distracted by political issues.
The LAT fronts a look at how Sen. John McCain is trying to gain more support for his presidential run by emphasizing his unwavering support for the "surge," even when it was an unpopular idea. Now that violence in Iraq is decreasing, he hopes people will agree with him that he was right all along. But a new poll seems to suggest McCain's strategy won't get very far because, even though more Americans believe the situation in Iraq is improving, the majority still want to bring U.S. troops home and the low opinions of Bush remain steady.
Everyone notes that U.S. troops in Iraq killed at least five civilians, including one child, when they shot at vehicles that were approaching checkpoints and were seen as threatening. Two U.S. service members died, and at least 30 other Iraqis were killed on Tuesday.
The WP dedicates much of its front page to the death of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who died after seven hours of surgery early yesterday. Taylor, 24, was shot Monday by what appears to have been a home intruder and police in Miami are now investigating whether it was a random act. USAT also fronts the news and notes that Taylor is the fourth NFL player to die in the past year.
The U.S. Mint announced the final five designs in the State Quarters series, which has been described as a "remarkable success." The NYT reports that almost half of all Americans collect the quarters in some way, and all those coins that get taken out of circulation translate into a profit of $3.8 billion for the government.