Restrained Optimism For Mideast Peace Talks

U.S. Plans Hands-Off Approach at Meeting

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.

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