Agence France Presse (AFP)
October 23, 2008 - 8:00pm

The next US president, be it Barack Obama or John McCain, should get to work immediately to jump-start Middle East peace talks, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said here Thursday.

Erakat was visiting Tokyo for talks with Israel's Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, in the latest meeting arranged by leading donor Japan aimed at building confidence between the two sides.

"Whoever will be the next president of the United States, whether Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama, they must immediately engage and continue their engagement and no time should be wasted," Erakat told reporters.

Erakat conceded that the next US leader will have an overwhelming number of pressing issues, including the global financial crisis, US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a nuclear standoff with Iran.

"But we need them to focus and to remain engaged for their own interest in achieving peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and Israelis and Syrians, and Israelis and Lebanese," Erakat said.

US President George W. Bush brought Israeli and Palestinian leaders to a summit in Annapolis, near the US capital, in November last year, which set a goal of reaching a peace accord by the time he leaves office in January.

However the Palestinian side say the target is impossible to reach because of political developments in Israel, where outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is waiting for his successor Tzipi Livni to form a government.

The negotiations still need to resolve thorny issues such as the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian refugees and the final borders of a future Palestinian state.

Obama, who is ahead in opinion polls, said on a visit to the Middle East in July that the next US administration should "continue to work toward the goal of the two states living side by side in peace and security."

Both the Palestinian and Israeli officials voiced hope that the global economic downturn would not set back peace efforts in the Middle East.

"No financial crisis should affect our efforts to achieve peace," Erakat said.

"As Palestinians, we depend a lot on the generous contribution of the donor community -- the US, Europe, Japan and others," he said.

Japan, the world's second largest economy, has sought a larger involvement in the Middle East peace process in line with ambitions for a greater global role.

Japan has spearheaded a project to build an agro-industrial complex in the West Bank to create badly needed jobs.

Sheetrit also said that the financial crisis should not "interfere" with the peace process.

"The damage that is happening without peace is much higher and bigger than any financial crisis can cause," Sheetrit said.

The Palestinian Authority received aid pledges totalling 7.7 billion dollars over three years at a donors conference in Paris in December last year.


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