Mideast Conference Nears, With Few Plans
'No One Seems to Know What Is Happening,' Arab Envoy Says

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.

So Saudi Arabia and other Arab states began to seek a comprehensive package of Israeli steps, including a freeze on settlement growth, the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, the easing of roadblocks and travel restrictions and a halt to the construction of its security barrier in and around the West Bank.

Rice has pushed both sides to adopt confidence-building measures before the meeting in an effort to build momentum and to convince Arabs that their participation is worthwhile. Israel appears poised to announce a freeze on settlement growth and other measures sought by the Saudis. The Palestinians, meanwhile, have deployed police in the West bank city of Nablus in a modest effort to show they are tackling security concerns.

Asked whether Saudi Arabia had made a settlement freeze a condition of its attendance, a senior Israeli official dryly said, "It has not been put to us this way." But he noted that under Israel's interpretation of the road map, a settlement freeze is to come only after the Palestinians take concrete steps to fight terrorism.

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official and author of the soon-to-be-released book, "The Much Too Promised Land," an account of U.S. efforts to foster peace, said invitations were issued two weeks before the last major international conference on the Middle East, held in Madrid in 1991. He said invitations were issued weeks ahead of another Middle East negotiation session, the 1998 Wye River conference in Maryland.

"I'm not sure any of that speaks to whether it is a consequential event or not," Miller said, suggesting that the proposed talks in Annapolis are mostly necessary to let the world know that substantive peace talks are already taking place.

"Abbas and Olmert have already had more serious discussions on the core issues than any Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president in history," he said. At Annapolis, "Rice will change the channel on the TV that for the last seven years has brought some pretty awful images."

The invitation list has created its own headaches. Administration officials were split over whether to invite Syria, but Rice prevailed in that dispute by suggesting that the United States instead invite an entity called the "follow-up committee" of the Arab League, which happens to include Syria along with nearly a dozen other Arab states. The solution put the burden on Syria to accept without making it look like a diplomatic cave-in to conservatives.

An Arab diplomat said last week the list of invitees could easily reach 50 nations once all diplomatic considerations are addressed.

Every day last week, reporters pestered the State Department's spokesman, Sean McCormack, for an update on the invitations. Each time, he demurred. "Once the invitations are issued, I would expect that most, if not all, of the invitees will reply, 'Yes, we're coming,' " he said Friday. "I think they'll be able to get here."

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