WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A goal of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Middle East trip this week is to win Arab support for a proposed conference on Israeli-Palestinian peace moves, but details for that meeting are scant.
U.S. President George W. Bush announced the meeting would take place before the end of this year as part of what the White House said was a big new initiative to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Rice will be in Egypt and Saudi Arabia with Defense Secretary Robert Gates where stabilizing Iraq is a key topic but she will also be pushing for commitment to attend a meeting she says is aimed at promoting a two-state solution for the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“They (Arab nations) were expecting a bigger initiative,” said Middle East expert Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland. “No one knows who will attend or what will be on the agenda.”
For example, will U.S. foe Syria — a key player in the region — be excluded from such talks and will Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel, agree to attend?
An Arab diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said people were still trying to work out what such a meeting might achieve in pushing the peace process forward, especially as the Bush administration has only 17 months left in office.
“I think this is intended to be a sincere effort but for this to be effective we have to have clarity,” said the diplomat. “What is the objective of this conference?”
There has even been confusion over whether to call it a “conference,” which could imply more serious negotiations on a future Palestinian state, or the more neutral term “meeting.”
“We shouldn’t get hung up on the semantics here, but the important point about this meeting is that it would be to promote the two-state solution,” Rice said in an interview with the U.S.-backed Arabic Al Hurra television network.
Several Bush administration officials and diplomats said the modalities of the meeting were purposefully vague as Rice wanted to test the waters.
“The White House has continued to play down expectations,” said Daniel Levy, a senior fellow from the New America Foundation and former negotiator for the Israelis. “They don’t want to lock themselves into something in advance and promise something she can’t deliver.”
When ex-Secretary of State James Baker prepared for the Madrid Middle East peace conference in 1991 he embarked on a series of trips before announcing the meeting, and some analysts are questioning why Rice did not do the same.
“There is still a perplexing refusal to do the tedious but absolutely essential diplomatic prep work,” commented the New York Times in an editorial last week.
Many Arab states are deeply suspicious of the U.S. role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, particularly following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the chaos that has ensued.
They are also asking whether a future Palestinian state can be discussed when the Palestinian territories are divided between Islamist Hamas-run Gaza and the West Bank, where U.S.-backed President Mahmoud Abbas has his own government.
Saudi Arabia and others strongly oppose the U.S. government’s policy of isolating Hamas. “If you build (a new Palestinian state) on deepening Palestinian division then it can’t deliver legitimacy or security,” said Levy.
Last week two envoys from the 22-nation Arab League visited Israel to present a regional land-for-peace plan that calls for a rapid timetable for talks with the Palestinians over statehood.
That plan also offers Israel normal ties with all Arab states in return for a full withdrawal from the lands it seized in the 1967 Middle East war, creation of a Palestinian state and a “just solution” for refugees.
After her joint visit with Gates, Rice will travel separately on Wednesday and Thursday to Jerusalem and Ramallah to meet Abbas and Israeli officials before returning to Washington.