By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
The State Department formally announced last night that the United States has invited representatives of nearly 50 countries and institutions -- including Saudi Arabia and Syria -- to sit down with Israelis and Palestinians in Annapolis on Tuesday in a conference designed to kick-start substantive peace talks in the region.
The conference at the U.S. Naval Academy will be "a signal opportunity" to launch bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Assistant Secretary C. David Welch told reporters, noting that it comes after "a long period in which there have been no such negotiations."
The last such talks collapsed at the end of the Clinton administration in 2000, during a wave of Palestinian suicide attacks known as the second intifada.
President Bush announced plans for the event in July -- though then he called it only a "meeting" -- but the details and even the date were not announced until now so that the administration could find the right combination of words and gestures to ensure high-level Arab participation.
The central goal is to persuade Saudi Arabia to send its foreign minister to Annapolis, the first time such a senior Saudi official would have joined in a gathering with Israelis.
Bush weighed in with his own call to Saudi King Abdullah yesterday, though details were not provided by the White House. As a way to entice Saudi participation, diplomatic sources said, the formal invitation also drew on language from the 2003 "road map" plan for peace that mentions an Arab League initiative promoted by Abdullah.
That plan offers diplomatic relations with Israel if it withdraws to the 1967 borders and provides a "just solution" to the demands of Palestinian refugees. Though Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has praised elements of the Arab League initiative, Israeli officials thus far have rejected mentioning it in a joint statement, being crafted with the Palestinians, that will be issued in Annapolis.
To entice Syrian participation, the invitation includes road-map language calling for a "comprehensive settlement" -- diplomatic code for negotiations with Damascus and other neighbors, not just the Israeli-Palestinian track.
"It is a nod to the Syrians and a nod to the Saudis," said Robert Malley, a Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group. "We will know soon if either nod is enough for them to come."
Arab officials had pressed for an abundant gathering of nations, so that the tableaux would not just feature Israel and its Arab neighbors. As a result, countries such as Brazil, Senegal and Norway also received invitations.
Welch said that Bush signed the invitations to Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas -- who both announced yesterday that they had received them -- and that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed the invitations to her counterparts.
Welch stressed that broad international backing is important to give the revived peace talks momentum.
"We believe that we've communicated, with great transparency and considerable fullness, a good answer on most of the concerns raised by all the potential participants about the purpose and seriousness of this event," Welch said, noting that he was on the phone as late as midnight Monday and began making calls again yesterday at 4 a.m. "And so we're hopeful and expectant about their answers."
In the past, Saudi Arabia has sent only its ambassador to the United States to such international peace conferences. The Arab League will meet later this week to stake out a position on this gathering.
The invitation to Syria is especially significant because U.S.-Syrian relations have been badly strained amid accusations that Damascus is meddling in Lebanon and allowing insurgents to cross into Iraq. "If they come, we will not turn off the microphone for anyone," Welch said.
U.S. officials believe Arab participation at a senior level is essential to help Abbas during the negotiations, especially in countering claims from extremists that he is making too many compromises. The militant group Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June, leaving Abbas in charge of only part of the Palestinian territories.
Arab participation is also important to Olmert as he fends off attacks from the Israeli right and tries to demonstrate to his people that progress with the Palestinians will result in diplomatic ties with their Arab neighbors.
Under the schedule outlined by Welch, on Monday Bush will meet individually at the White House with Olmert and Abbas, and Rice will host a dinner at the State Department for conference participants. The conference will formally open Tuesday with speeches by Bush, Olmert and Abbas, and will include a meeting of the three men. Then Bush will hold bilateral talks with Abbas and Olmert back in Washington on Wednesday.