By Michael Abramowitz and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
On the eve of President Bush's most ambitious effort to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians, White House aides played down expectations for an immediate breakthrough, while Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, made clear that it expects an aggressive administration attempt to broker a final deal.
Officials from about 50 countries and organizations arrived in Washington yesterday for today's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis. U.S. officials describe the event as the beginning of negotiations they hope will lead to a Palestinian state, perhaps before Bush leaves office in January 2009.
U.S. officials touted the broad participation of Arab nations -- 12 in all, including Syria, as well as the Arab League -- as evidence of a new yearning in the region for an end to the conflict. But Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were already having trouble agreeing on a document that would outline the parameters of negotiations -- one sign of the huge obstacles awaiting the two sides when they sit down to bargain over such thorny issues as the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
So far, the Bush administration has been reluctant to offer its ideas for bridging disagreements or to impose its version of a settlement. U.S. officials indicated this week that that is unlikely to change.
"The notion that somehow the key to success is simply for the United States to lean on one side or another and jam a settlement through is just not what history has suggested," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters Sunday. "Those efforts to jam have not worked."
But Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Bush has assured that he will not let the new peace effort collapse and that he is willing to devise compromises when the Israelis and Palestinians become deadlocked. "Our coming here means that not only Saudi Arabia but all the other Arab countries were convinced of this commitment, and the seriousness of intent behind this that will hopefully see the breakthrough that everyone is hoping for in the Middle East," he told reporters here yesterday.
Bush proclaimed himself "optimistic" about the prospects for an agreement before heading into private meetings yesterday, first with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Olmert said he was pleased by the backing from other countries. "The international support is very important for us," he said as he thanked the president for helping the parties reach "this point where from we and the Palestinians will sit together, in Jerusalem, and work out something that will be very good to create a great hope for our peoples."
Abbas later hailed Bush's "historic initiative" in convening the Annapolis conference. "We have a great deal of hope that this conference will produce permanent status negotiations . . . that would lead to a comprehensive . . . peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people," he said, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter.
Today's conference represents something of a departure for Bush, who has generally shunned the close involvement in Middle East peace talks displayed by some former presidents. But Bush and his aides believe the time may be ripe for a new initiative; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has visited the Middle East eight times this year, most recently seeking to coax skeptical Arab countries to attend the conference and to nudge the Israelis and Palestinians into agreeing on a document outlining the issues before them.
In recent days, however, U.S. officials have sought to temper expectations, saying it is no longer so important to come up with a document because both sides have already agreed to hold final negotiations in Annapolis. White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters yesterday the document "would be a nice thing to have, but it's not critical to this meeting. . . . They can launch the negotiations without a document."
Aides said Bush's opening speech will make it clear that he considers a peace deal a top priority of his final year in office. But they said he will not be dictating terms or imposing his own ideas for a settlement.
But Saudi Arabia's Saud said efforts by the administration to ratchet down hopes did not reflect the views of many participants. "The expectations are high regardless of what is said, and I hope that everybody who comes to the conference will be aware of the high expectation and will act accordingly," he said.
Some Middle East experts, moreover, said Olmert and Abbas may need more than Bush administration rhetoric to reach a final settlement. The track record of accomplishment in past meetings between the two is meager, they said, even though the relationship has warmed and they are said to have begun discussing some of the most vexing issues in settling the conflict.
Olmert is a deeply unpopular prime minister and Abbas has had control -- barely -- of only half of the Palestinian territories since the militant group Hamas seized Gaza in June. Yet they will be called upon to make difficult compromises -- and then sell those compromises to their skeptical publics.
Abbas "is trying to negotiate the future of the Palestinian people while he is literally at war with at least half of the Palestinian people," said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
Rice pushed Olmert and Abbas together during a February meeting in Jerusalem. The atmosphere was tense, largely because Abbas had just agreed to create a unity government with Hamas. "It was very uncomfortable," a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities. "She was just relieved it came off."
The atmosphere improved when the unity deal fell apart and Hamas took over Gaza. Suddenly a militant group was no longer in charge of the government on the West Bank, freeing Olmert to increase contacts and let tax revenue flow back to the Palestinians. The leaders began meeting more frequently; Olmert even traveled to the Palestinian territories to see Abbas and became the first Israeli prime minister to visit the occupied West Bank city of Jericho.
Initially, driven in part by Rice's demand, the men talked mostly about ways to improve Palestinian life in the West Bank.
Olmert eventually agreed to release more than 300 Palestinian prisoners, almost all of them from Abbas's Fatah Party, although that is a tiny fraction of the 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Abbas wanted set free many more prisoners, who hold a special place in Palestinian society as symbols of sacrifice. While Olmert agreed to remove about two dozen roadblocks in the West Bank, about 500 military checkpoints and other obstacles remain, choking the economy in the territories.
On Aug. 28, the two men for the first time touched on core issues -- the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the right claimed by Palestinian refugees to return to the Jewish state. But Palestinian and Israeli officials said Olmert and Abbas have not come close to resolving any of them.
Diana Butto, a former top Abbas aide, said that talks fill a need for Abbas but are unlikely to ever yield much. "He wants a peace process, but he does not care about the details or the substance so much," she said. "I don't think he has a strategy for liberating the country."
Olmert has long said he would allow some outlying Arab-majority neighborhoods of Jerusalem to be part of a Palestinian state, largely to strengthen the Jewish majority in Israel. But no specific proposals on Jerusalem, such as those that the sides tentatively agreed to in the last formal Israeli-Palestinian talks, emerged from their meetings.
Olmert has never wavered from rejecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. He has said the future Palestinian state is the natural home for the refugees, and his negotiating team demanded in pre-conference talks that the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.
Some Jewish and evangelical Christian groups have expressed concern that Bush is pressuring Israel to make unwise concessions, but Hadley reassured some of them yesterday in a private meeting at the White House. "He was very strong on the point that what the administration is doing is supporting a decision that Prime Minister Olmert of Israel has made" in pursuing a peace deal, said Nathan J. Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
Staff writer Robin Wright and correspondent Scott Wilson contributed to this report. Wilson reported from Jerusalem.