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Arab leaders cautiously support summit

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- President Bush's declared intention to refocus on the Middle East by sponsoring a peace conference this fall won cautious endorsement yesterday from Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab leaders who will be invited. But many in the region voiced skepticism about what it could achieve.

Five years after calling for creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel, Bush announced Monday his renewed commitment to that goal during the final 18 months of his presidency, saying this is a "moment of choice" for the region.

But officials and analysts immersed in the six-decade conflict said the initiative faces many obstacles: an untenable split among the Palestinians, weak leadership in the Israeli and Palestinian camps, widely differing expectations for the conference and a sense that Bush is acting too late.

Recalling the 2002 policy speech in which Bush boldly set a three-year deadline for a peace settlement, Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea wrote of a "shrunken" American leader who, after long inattention to the conflict, took care in his address Monday not to specify any timetables.

"Comparison of the two speeches reveals that peace in the Middle East is like the horizon: The nearer you get, the further away it is," Barnea wrote yesterday in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonot.

Several Israeli and Arab commentators said Bush's initiative could fall victim to his risky strategy: promoting peace talks between Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian entity on the West Bank while isolating the Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip and calls for Israel's destruction.

They warned that Hamas, which denounced the Bush plan as a "crusade" against Palestinians, is strong enough militarily to sabotage any progress toward a settlement.

Analysts said Bush diminished expectations by naming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, rather than himself, to preside over the conference.

America's Arab allies welcomed Bush's call for a meeting without promising to participate.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Bush's initiative "contains positive elements that we must hold on to and build upon and develop." He applauded the stated U.S. goal of ending Israel's "occupation" - a pointed term Bush used in his speech - of Palestinian territories.

Jordan's King Abdullah II called the announcement a "step in the right direction."

Saudi Arabia welcomed the initiative, saying it wanted the conference to "be part of a serious international effort tackling core issues of the conflict."

The statement did not say whether Saudi Arabia would take part in the meeting, as Egypt and Jordan are widely expected to do and as Bush and the Israelis clearly want. Saudi Arabia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel; its participation would be seen as a breakthrough.

"Despite all the suspicions over Bush's intentions, his absolute bias toward Israel and the violence he has spread in the region, we should interact with this initiative," said Mohamed Sayed Said, an international affairs specialist at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "For the first time, Bush proposes a round of negotiations that addresses the fundamental issues."

Israel is generally averse to multinational peace conferences. But Israeli leaders were relieved by Bush's proposal because it stopped short of demanding concessions they are unwilling to make, such as removing long-established Jewish settlements from the West Bank.

Bush accepted a demand by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to hold talks with Israel on a final peace settlement, skipping over an interim stage defined by previous negotiations in which the Palestinians would get a state with interim borders.

But Bush also gave Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has refused to discuss a final settlement, an escape clause: First, the Palestinians must disarm militants who attack Israel and rid their administration of corruption.

"We hope that this conference will make it possible to fix a date for the creation of an independent Palestinian state," said Nabil abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas. Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisen, said it is too early to address such issues as long as Palestinian violence against Israel continues. But a peace conference "would certainly add to the capability of arriving at the core issues," she said.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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