Analysis: Summit Holds Risks for Bush

The Associated Press
Sunday, November 25, 2007; 7:02 AM

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, who has avoided playing much of a role in the Middle East peace process, is now gambling that the time is right for progress in the troubled region. But the risks are high, and the odds for success seem long.

The planned three-day conference in Annapolis, Md., and Washington this week comes with just 14 months left in Bush's term and his legacy tarnished by the war in Iraq.

Pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian peace has preoccupied more than one U.S. president. President Clinton made it a top agenda item in the closing days of his presidency. But with the notable exception of President Carter, whose Camp David sessions in 1978 led to a peace treaty the following year between Israel and Egypt, presidential Mideast peacemaking has fizzled.

The U.S.-sponsored peace conference _ first proposed by Bush last July _ is designed to build momentum toward the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, suspended for the past seven years. The idea is to eventually establish a Palestinian state. Bush called on moderate Arab states to take an active part in promoting negotiations that could lead to "a final peace in the Middle East."

"The president will say that the Annapolis conference will signal broad international support for the leaders' courageous efforts, which will help provide for meaningful progress toward a just and lasting negotiated settlement to this conflict, and ultimately a comprehensive peace in the Middle East," White House press secretary Dana Perino said Saturday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists the sessions will be "serious and substantive." Standing next to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank this month, Rice said, "We frankly have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op."

But chances for any breakthrough pointing toward that "final peace" seem slight. The two sides are far apart on many issues, and the Palestinians themselves are divided. The coastal Gaza Strip is under rule of militant Islamic Hamas and the West Bank is controlled by the moderate Abbas.

"For both Bush and Rice, it's a bit of a long shot. And there is a bit of image-making there, especially since the president promised in May 2003 that he was going to give this the same attention he was giving Iraq," said David Mack, who was deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the first Bush administration.

"But there is also some serious substance here: a conjunction of desire by both Abbas and (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert to show some progress," said Mack, the vice president of the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

It might seem that Bush and Rice have little to lose in forging ahead with the conference, given the president's low approval ratings and the unpopularity of the war in Iraq.

Still, pressure has been building on the White House to produce real achievements _ or see the conference idea backfire.

The stakes for the session increased Friday when Saudi Arabia and other Arab states agreed to attend the conference. Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians had already accepted the U.S. invitations.

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