Egypt voices support for Annapolis meeting

Rice seeks backing of Arab capitals for peace conference

October 17, 2007|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAIRO, Egypt -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received measured support from Egypt yesterday for an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference despite widespread doubts in the Middle East that it will result in a lasting deal or improve security in the region.

Rice's trip to Cairo was a diplomatic effort to convince Arab capitals to attend the Bush administration's summit, which has no official date but is expected to take place before year's end in Annapolis; Israeli officials have said it is expected to begin Nov. 26. Egypt has been skeptical of the idea for weeks, but after meeting with Rice, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told a news conference that he backed the plan.

"We are confident because [Rice] says she is determined, and the president of the United States is determined, to have a breakthrough during the remaining year of his administration," said Aboul Gheit, who recently suggested that the conference be postponed. "We have to believe them."

He added that Rice "has helped us to understand the American objective. She shed a great deal of light on the current American efforts."

It is not known which Egyptian officials will attend the summit, and Aboul Gheit hinted that the timeline could be pushed back if negotiations over the goals of the conference were unresolved. But his qualified endorsement is likely to help Rice when she meets this week with King Abdullah II of Jordan. Cairo and Amman are key U.S. allies; without their support, an Israeli-Palestinian pact would have little chance of succeeding.

Both countries have grown agitated with Washington over the Iraq war, the instability in Lebanon and what they have regarded as the White House's lack of engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian question. They fear that signing onto a peace conference without a guarantee to advance Palestinian hopes for statehood would further hurt their standing in the Arab world.

The Palestinians and the Israelis have not agreed on a joint working document for the conference. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wants the summit to resolve statehood, Jewish settlements and other issues tied to the 1993 Oslo Peace Agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has suggested that negotiations to reach a final agreement be less specific.

"We will continue to work and help them to create this document, and we will then be in a position I think fairly soon to talk about when this meeting ought to take place," Rice said at the news conference after her talks with Aboul Gheit and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Rice met with Palestinian and Israeli officials earlier in the week and is expected to resume talks today before traveling to Jordan. "We have a lot of work to do," she said.

Aboul Gheit said Egypt has promised Rice "that we would help her and we would help the parties as well in order to achieve the objective ... that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state."

Jeffrey Fleishman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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