( LatWp ) - The Bush administration has so far failed to generate serious traction behind its latest Middle East peace effort, with the opening session of its Washington conference of Arab and Israeli leaders tentatively scheduled for Nov. 15, according to senior Arab and U.S. officials and former U.S. envoys.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves for the Middle East Tuesday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as key players question whether she is doing enough diplomatic legwork or outlining specific goals for the conference announced by President Bush in July.
"I think for the first time here, in quite some time, I really do feel that there is an opportunity," Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch told reporters Monday. "With a little hard work - and that may take quite a bit of time - we can get it in a way that looks a little bit better, more dramatic, to you all."
But Welch declined to discuss the process, the participants and the anticipated results of the conference.
The Israelis are looking for a basic set of principles for future negotiations, while the Palestinians want a detailed framework for a final settlement, Middle East officials said. With little accomplished so far, the United States would be lucky to find something in the middle, though in the end it might not satisfy either party, several Middle East sources said.
Arab nations, notably Saudi Arabia, are looking for specific timelines and language on the most controversial issues, including the final status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, eventual borders between the two states and security guarantees. "If this conference will not discuss serious topics aimed to resolve the conflict, put Arab initiative as a key objective, set an agenda that details issues as required and oblige Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, this conference will not have any objective and will turn into protracted negotiations," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters last week.
Middle East officials say the Bush administration is trying the anti-Clinton approach. President Clinton used a hands-on strategy with specifics to steer the parties toward resolution. The Bush administration is instead seeing how much progress is made in the new talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which became serious only after the Palestinian conflict in June forced the two leaders to try again, envoys said.
"The United States clearly sees November as a launching pad to get all the architecture right, so at that point you begin making a serious stab at resolving all of this," said a senior Arab envoy. "But we're more interested in seeing November as a point to bring to culmination these issues."
Citing insufficient diplomacy, many are pessimistic that anything significant will come from the U.S. efforts. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, said Rice has "underestimated the amount of heavy lifting she'll have to do," and that "she could succeed, but it's going to take the kind of legwork that she hasn't been prepared to take until now."
James A. Baker III, serving as secretary of state, made nine trips in nine months to set up the 1991 Madrid conference on Middle East peace. Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spent more than a year to set up the 1998 Wye River summit that led to an interim agreement that was never implemented, noted Aaron David Miller, former Middle East envoy.
"The way you shuttle is that you shuttle," said Dennis Ross, who was an envoy under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and author of "Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World." "It's not too late (for Rice) to pour herself into it, but it's almost too late." Rice is staying in the region for one night.
Rice is not paying enough attention to what is happening on the ground, Ross said, with the breakup of the Palestinians into two rival parts and a failing economy that has left 40 percent of the population unemployed