Mideast Conference Nears, With Few Plans

President Bush said a conference would be held
President Bush said a conference would be held "this fall," but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has not achieved a consensus among Arabs and Israelis about its topics, and has not set a date or issued invitations. (By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007

A few days after Thanksgiving, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plan to open a meeting in Annapolis to launch the first round of substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during Bush's presidency.

But no conference date has been set. No invitations have been issued. And no one really agrees on what the participants will actually talk about once they arrive at the Naval Academy for the meeting, which is intended to relaunch Bush's stillborn "road map" plan to create a Palestinian state.

The anticipation surrounding the meeting has heightened the stakes for other countries seeking invites. If Turkey comes, Greece wants a seat. So does Brazil, which has more Arabs than the Palestinian territories. Norway hosted an earlier round of peacemaking in Oslo, so it wants a role. Japan wants to do more than write checks for Palestinians.

"No one seems to know what is happening," one senior Arab envoy said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid appearing out of the loop. "I am completely lost."

The envoy recounted the calls he made in recent days to dig up information and said he had reserved rooms for his country's foreign minister and other officials. He added with exasperation: "It is a very peculiar thing."

Even a senior administration official deeply involved in the preparations confided, before speaking off the record about his expectations: "I can't connect the dots myself because it is still a work in progress."

The delay in officially announcing the meeting, which Bush said in July would take place "this fall," is largely the result of the complexities of the five-decade conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Rice is holding back an announcement as long as possible in order to entice as many Arab nations -- particularly Saudi Arabia -- to attend at a senior level.

Many diplomats involved in planning the meeting say it is simply intended to validate talks that are already proceeding between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over the contours of a Palestinian state.

The conference is intended to be brief, lasting a day or so. The substance of a final statement may well be bland -- there is no agreement on a text yet.

But Rice hopes the two sides will agree to press ahead on the road map plan on two simultaneous tracks. Under this new approach, the Israelis and Palestinians would negotiate hard toward a permanent settlement of the conflict, which all sides hope will be seen as a major breakthrough, while at the same time taking practical steps to ease tensions on the ground.

Rice has made repeated trips to the region this year to breathe new life into a peace process that had become dormant. She has sought Arab participation in order to give Abbas greater credibility among Palestinians, particularly because the militant group Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.

But Saudi officials are driving a hard bargain. They initially insisted that they would not attend a conference that was not substantive and did not deal with the core issues of creating a Palestinian state. Olmert, however, has balked at agreeing to a joint statement with Abbas that might be viewed in Israel as making concessions ahead of actual hard bargaining.

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