Mideast meeting plans in dispute

Rice seeks to lower expectations for Annapolis talks

October 18, 2007|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration pressured Israeli and Palestinian leaders yesterday to lay the groundwork for an Annapolis peace conference, with the president saying he was "optimistic" that talks brokered by the U.S. could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.

"This is going to be a serious and substantive meeting," Bush told reporters in his first news conference since disclosure that officials hope to hold a meeting at the Naval Academy in late November to revive the Mideast peace process.

The president's comments came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, concluding a round of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, appeared to lower expectations for such a meeting.

Rice said an Annapolis conference would be a "stop in the process" toward peace. She sidestepped a question on whether disagreements between officials in Israel and the Palestinian territories might delay the much-anticipated meeting in Maryland.

Palestinian leaders have said that Israeli army raids in the West Bank and other actions are hampering the preparation of a key document to be used during the meeting.

The two sides are also at odds over exactly what the document should include -- such as the future status of Jerusalem.

"We have not set a date for the meeting, so it's a little hard to postpone something for which you haven't set a date," Rice said in Egypt this week.

As the final year of his presidency approaches, Bush is redoubling his administration's efforts for a Mideast accord, a goal that eluded his predecessors but that, if achieved, could bolster his legacy.

Bush announced in July that he would convene a gathering of key players this fall, and the administration is rushing to meet the deadline.

"I would note that there are only two months left in fall -- that's November and December," Rice said. "So we're working very urgently toward getting to that meeting."

Important details remain unresolved. In addition to the date, a full list of participants from neighboring Arab nations has not been drawn up, and Israelis and Palestinians are at odds over setting a timetable for statehood.

Still, Bush said yesterday that he was "pleased with the progress" of discussions between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The leaders, Bush said, need to "lay out a vision" for a Palestinian state that could co-exist with Israel.

"The Palestinians that have been made promises all these years need to see there's a serious, focused effort" to create a state, he said.

Bush said his administration's peace effort differed from past attempts because it included regional neighbors -- some of which consider themselves at war with Israel and challenge its right to exist.

"Part of the issue in the past has been that the Arab nations stood on the sidelines," he said. "And when a state was in reach, they weren't a part of the process, encouraging the parties to move forward."

Still, Arab countries have been reluctant to participate in a meeting.

This week, Rice won the support of Egypt after officials there had said they would not take part in the process. After leaving Egypt for Israel, Rice warned yesterday that negotiations remain difficult, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders spar over the topics for the Annapolis meeting.

The peace process has reached a "moment of opportunity, but there is very hard work ahead," Rice told reporters at a news conference with the leader of the Israeli negotiating team.

Israelis and Palestinians have vastly different expectations for a conference, at which they would present a document that would start negotiations to create a Palestinian state.

The Palestinians want a detailed document; the Israelis favor a general agreement. A senior Palestinian official said Abbas was disappointed by U.S. suggestions that he significantly scale back Palestinian demands in order to address Israeli concerns.

The Palestinians want the document to include some mention of how to solve issues in dispute, such as the fate of Jerusalem, borders, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Palestinian refugees.

A core Palestinian demand is that the border between Israel and Palestine be based on pre-1967 Arab-Israeli war lines, with modifications through land swaps. Israel captured the West Bank and other areas in the 1967 war.

Bush said yesterday that the principal roadblock to a Palestinian state was "extremists who don't want there to be a democracy in the Middle East, whether it be in Iraq or Lebanon or in the Palestinian territories."

"It's part of this struggle, this ideological struggle in which we're engaged," he said.

As Rice continued her diplomatic outreach, officials in Annapolis were left with little information about a meeting that could disrupt traffic and other routines in the historic seaport and Maryland state capital.

While a spokesman for the Naval Academy declined to comment, a source familiar with the matter said school officials had already begun to notify local authorities to make preparations for a conference in the last week of November.

Ray Weaver, an Annapolis spokesman, said city officials know little more about the conference than they did two weeks ago and have received no information about specific plans or dates.

"We have some requests for folks to be able to protest, if it happens, and they had on there 26th or 27th of November," he said. "I don't know where they got that information, but the rumor mill seems to be pretty filled up with that being the date."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Bradley Olson and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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