Bush launches Middle East talks amid scepticism

United States President George Bush invited Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the White House to renew long-stalled peace talks on Wednesday but faced deep scepticism over chances for a deal before he leaves office.

Bush will bring together Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas one day after a 44-nation conference where both pledged to try to forge a peace treaty by the end of 2008 that would create a Palestinian state.

Finally embracing a hands-on approach he disdained after Bill Clinton failed to broker a peace accord in the twilight of his presidency, Bush will ceremonially inaugurate the first formal Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in seven years.

The White House talks will wrap up three days of intense Middle East diplomacy that underscored Bush’s aim of achieving in his final 14 months in office what has eluded US administrations for decades.

All three leaders are politically weak at home, raising doubts whether they can make good on their commitments, and lingering mistrust between Israel and Palestinians will make any progress difficult.

“There’s never a perfect time in the Middle East and so we have to deal with the times that we’ve been dealt,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged on NBC’s Today Show, a day after the Middle East conference in Annapolis.

In a sign of the obstacles ahead, Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip rejected the new peace drive and vowed to undermine it. Violence also flared, with Israeli missiles killing two Hamas naval officers in the southern part of the coastal territory, medical workers said.

Core issues skirted

Bush, who faced criticism for not doing more sooner to resolve the conflict, had opened Tuesday’s conference at the US Naval Academy by reading a joint statement painstakingly negotiated by the two sides but which skirted the core issues that divide them.

Bush, however, lauded Olmert and Abbas for agreeing to “good faith, bilateral negotiations”, and Israel and the Palestinians committed themselves to send negotiating teams to a new session in Jerusalem on December 12.

The Arab presence at the conference, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, gave a boost to Bush’s highest-profile peace drive since he took office in 2001.

But another motivation for many participants was the desire to offset the growing regional influence of Iran, a US foe and outspoken opponent of peace efforts with the Jewish state.

Trying to reinforce the seriousness of the US commitment, the Bush administration planned to name a Marine general to monitor compliance with a US-backed “road map” seen as crucial to the new peace effort, officials said.

Still, some analysts were sceptical.
“There is, I think, considerable doubt remaining about whether the administration is prepared to take on the heavy lifting ... to make this work,” said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution.

Bush hopes for a foreign policy success to polish his legacy, but the unpopular war in Iraq, the main factor in his low public approval ratings, could limit his room to manoeuvre.

Olmert’s public standing is also low, partly due to last year’s Lebanon War, and rightist coalition partners have warned against concessions. Abbas lost control of Gaza to Hamas Islamists in June and only holds sway in the West Bank.

The Annapolis accord emerged from last-minute talks on a joint document meant to chart the course for negotiating the toughest “final status” issues of the conflict—Jerusalem, borders, security and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

The declaration was mostly vague about the US role.—Reuters

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