Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Details of Annapolis Summit Are Cloudy

A few days after Thanksgiving, President Bush and Secretary of State Rice plan to open a meeting in Annapolis, Md., to launch the first round of substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during Mr. Bush's presidency. But no conference date has been set. No invitations have been issued. And no one really agrees on what the participants will actually talk about once they arrive at the Naval Academy for the meeting, which is intended to relaunch Mr. Bush's stillborn "road map" plan to create a Palestinian state.

The anticipation surrounding the meeting has heightened the stakes for smaller countries seeking invites. If Turkey comes, Greece wants a seat. So does Brazil, which has more Arabs than the Palestinian territories. Norway hosted an earlier round of peacemaking in Oslo, so they want a role. Japan wants to do more than write checks for Palestinian Arabs.

"No one seems to know what is happening," one senior Arab envoy said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid embarrassing himself. "I am completely lost."

The envoy recounted the calls he had made in recent days to dig up information and said he had reserved rooms for his country's foreign minister and other officials. He then added with exasperation: "It is a very peculiar thing." Even a senior administration official deeply involved in the preparations confided, before speaking off the record about his expectations: "I can't connect the dots myself because it is still a work in progress."

The delay in officially announcing the meeting, which Mr. Bush said in July would take place "this fall," is largely the result of the complexities of the five-decade conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Ms. Rice is holding back an official announcement as long as possible in order to entice as many Arab nations — particularly Saudi Arabia — to attend at a senior level.

Many diplomats involved in planning the meeting say it is simply intended to validate talks that are already proceeding between Prime Minister Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, over the contours of a Palestinian state. The conference is intended to be brief, lasting only a day or so. The substance of a final statement may well be bland — there is no agreement on a text yet.

But Ms. Rice hopes the two sides will agree to press ahead on the "road map" plan on two simultaneous tracks. Under this new approach, the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs will negotiate hard toward a permanent settlement of the conflict, which all sides hope will be seen as a major breakthrough, while at the same time taking practical steps to ease tensions on the ground.

Ms. Rice has made repeated trips to the region this year to breath new life in the dormant peace talks..

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