US trying to stay in background of Mideast conference it arranged
Just weeks before a peace conference marking President George W. Bush's most direct intervention in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. officials are trying to say as little as possible about what is on the table.
The November session will be a serious run at problems that have proved insoluble in the past, U.S. officials say, yet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others have avoided talking specifics or using the lexicon of past, failed peace talks.
Rice calls the U.S.-sponsored session an "international meeting," instead of the loftier summit or conference, as a way to keep expectations low. She talks about establishing a Palestinian state, the practical goal of peace talks, but almost never uses the word "peace."
The United States has kept quiet on the most basic details about the meeting, including precise dates, the guest list and the location - though it is expected to be in Annapolis, Maryland, near Washington. Rice will be on the spot to fill in the blanks during a preparatory trip to the Middle East that is schedule to start this weekend.
The intentional understatement masks the high stakes for a conference that could christen a historic agreement on some of the most difficult issues in the six-decade conflict, and the political and diplomatic risk Bush is taking late in his presidency.
Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, a Rice mentor, and other well-known Washington advisers warned Bush and Rice in a letter Wednesday that the session must tackle the "substance of a permanent peace."
Arab states say they welcome Bush's engagement but are wary of being mere window-dressing for a too-little, too-late attempt to revive peace talks after a seven-year freeze.
The Bush administration's closest friends in the Arab world have said they want no part of a feel-good session, or have put conditions on their participation.
"We haven't issued any invitations yet," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said this week, cautioning there will be "posturing" on all sides ahead of the meeting. "We're going to focus on making this meeting the most efficient and effective use of all the participants' time to try to move the process forward."
U.S. officials say they are encouraged by meaty discussions between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and new negotiating teams named this week. Those talks have not derailed despite political opposition and uncertainty on both sides.
The best-case scenario has Olmert and Abbas fashioning a fairly detailed framework for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. ( TDN )