WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that his administration will sponsor a fall meeting of Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders to try to revive Middle East peace efforts aimed at the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Bush, seeking to build support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with the militant Hamas movement, said the United States also is prodding other countries, including Arab states, to step up donations to Abbas' government. He said U.S. contributions this year will total $190 million, most of which has been committed and announced.
Despite a commitment Bush made five years ago to a Palestinian state, the White House has shied away from the type of intensive brokering efforts that previous administrations engaged in to try to move the process forward. After Hamas, which seeks the destruction of Israel, won a majority of seats in Palestinian parliamentary elections in early 2006, the United States and European Union halted assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
An uneasy Palestinian power-sharing arrangement ended with Hamas' military takeover of the Gaza Strip last month. And Bush, in his White House speech, said yesterday that Palestinians now have a choice between the moderation of Abbas, who controls the West Bank, and the radicalism of Hamas.
The takeover of Gaza has created "a moment of clarity for all Palestinians," Bush said.
He added, "And now comes the moment of choice."
Administration officials hope that collaboration of Arab states in the peace effort would help develop new diplomatic momentum at a time when most observers are deeply pessimistic about the prospects for progress toward peace.
An international meeting that brings together Israelis and Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic dealings with Israel, would be a rare event and a public relations coup for the United States. It would also give a boost to the weak administration of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Daniel Levy, a former adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
David Welch, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for the Middle East, told reporters there was a reason for optimism.
"We wouldn't be launching ourselves on this enterprise if we didn't feel some confidence that there is a willingness in the region to embrace the path to peace," Welch said.
But U.S. officials acknowledged that they are only beginning to issue invitations to the fall meeting, at which U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would preside. No location has been announced. President Bush called Saudi King Abdullah, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday afternoon, officials said.
Some of the Arab states have a different view of ways to establish Palestinian-Israeli peace. While the United States seeks to isolate Hamas in Gaza, the Saudis and Egyptians, for example, have spoken of the need to try to re-form a "unity" government between Hamas and Fatah, Abbas' party.
Bush said both the Israelis and Palestinians had obligations if the peace effort is to move forward.
Israel must remove unauthorized outposts in Palestinian territory and halt expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Bush said. He also called on Olmert to continue to release tax revenues Israel has collected for the Palestinians.
The president said the Palestinians "must arrest terrorists, dismantle their infrastructure and confiscate illegal weapons."
Mark Regev, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said Israeli officials welcome Bush's call for a peace conference.
Israel has been averse to multilateral peace conferences in the past, preferring instead to deal through U.S. mediators or directly with the Palestinian Authority. But Regev said Israel "supports multi-lateral efforts to strengthen the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue."
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Abbas, offered a low-key response to Bush's comments, saying the important goal was to move toward the "road map," the U.S.-sponsored process intended to bring peace.
Aaron David Miller, a U.S. Middle East adviser from 1978 to 2003, said that although some of the pieces of the Bush administration's approach seemed "logical and understandable," he was not convinced that the White House would give this the priority needed at a time when the obstacles are so formidable.
"We should have low expectations about what can be accomplished over the next 18 months," said Miller.
Israel has channeled more than $100 million in frozen Palestinian tax funds to Abbas' government, agreed to grant clemency to 178 wanted militants from Abbas' Fatah movement and scaled back army arrest raids in the West Bank. It also has pledged to free 252 imprisoned Palestinian terrorist suspects this week, most of them Fatah militants.
Abbas and Olmert met yesterday for the second time since the Gaza takeover and pledged to meet again in two weeks.
Palestinian officials often voice frustration that talks between the pair have focused more on confidence-building measures than on the substantive issues of a final peace settlement - borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and conflicting claims over Jerusalem.
Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.