Rice tries to close gap in Israeli-Palestinian talks

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets Israeli and Palestinian leaders this weekend to craft a joint document ahead of a peace conference but she has intentionally set expectations low.

US officials expect Rice’s third visit in six weeks to the region will result in a document filled with general principles to kick off negotiations on a Palestinian state, but with few hard-core specifics.

“They are wisely reducing the bar on expectations. They are now dropping it so low it could hit them on the head. But that is wise,” said Middle East expert Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Centre, a former CIA analyst.

Rice is due to arrive in Jerusalem late on Saturday after attending an Iraq conference in Turkey, where she is set to hold a string of bilateral meetings on her peace efforts.

On Sunday, Rice will address a conference in Jerusalem where she is expected to push both sides to make bold compromises and agree to meet commitments under a long-stalled 2003 “road map” peace plan, including a halt to Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and a Palestinian crackdown on militants.

The Bush administration is seeking to boost Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas militarily.
Last week the White House asked the US Congress for at least $410-million in additional funds in 2008 to build up Abbas’ forces and ease the Palestinian Authority’s financial woes.

US officials say it is unlikely Rice will announce a date for the peace conference, set for Annapolis, Maryland, during this visit but invitations could be issued on her return from Israel and the West Bank. The most likely date for the meeting is the week of November 26, say officials and diplomats.

Dennis Ross, who was Middle East envoy in the Clinton administration, said Rice appeared a long way from closing key differences between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

“She has two leaders who want to do something but they also don’t have strong political bases at home. That is a limitation,” said Ross.

‘Not Camp David’

Ross was involved in negotiations at the US presidential retreat in Camp David in 2000. The talks ultimately collapsed when Israel and the Palestinians failed to reach agreement on the final status issues—statehood, borders and the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

“This is not Camp David where you are dealing in great details. This is still something which is setting in motion what will be more detailed discussions,” said Ross of Rice’s efforts to pull together the Annapolis meeting.

For political reasons, experts say, it is more likely the document will be more sympathetic to Israeli concerns than Palestinian demands.

“No one is going to be able to push Olmert beyond his comfort level,” said Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland.

Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, said Rice needed to start a sustained and credible peace process that dealt with issues of a permanent settlement.

“We have not had a sustained peace process for a long time. It can’t be an event and then people go home,” he said of the Annapolis meeting.

Fahmy suggested Rice should set a time frame for negotiating core issues, a demand the Palestinians have made but which the Israelis oppose. There also needs to be a clear strategy for follow-up meetings that could go well into the next US administration, after President George Bush’s term ends in January 2009, he said.

Whatever documents are ultimately agreed before the Annapolis conference, experts say Rice would be foolhardy to ignore the spoiler role of Hamas, the militant group that beat Abbas’ Fatah party in elections and now controls Gaza.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator and now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, pointed to growing tensions in Gaza and said if the situation escalated further, both Olmert and Abbas could find it difficult to attend the Annapolis conference anyway.

Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia, which has still not said whether it will attend the conference, should be pushed to get Hamas to not wreck any deal, experts said. - Reuters

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