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Negotiations unravel before they begin

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- After prodding the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table for the first time in nearly seven years, the Bush administration now confronts a stalemate that threatens to undermine the latest peace initiative and further diminish American influence in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas put negotiators to work last week with instructions to make progress in advance of a U.S.-sponsored peace conference tentatively set for next month in Annapolis. Yet the talks have reached an impasse, aides said, prompting the two leaders to look to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to salvage the effort during a six-day visit to the region starting this weekend.

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The administration's effort is hobbled by stark differences between two sides with weak leaders who face hawkish opposition at home and cannot even agree on what kind of joint document to strive for as a basis for the conference.

And while Rice has visited the region nearly every month this year, the Bush administration has been leery from its beginnings to take an active role in mediating on the core issues of the conflict - the borders of a new Palestinian state, what part of Jerusalem it will include, and whether any of the millions of Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to Israel.

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"It's hard to imagine that we're a month before the conference and the parties still don't have a common concept of what they're after," said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "If you don't know where you want to go, no car can get you there."

A breakdown of the peace effort would deal a blow to the U.S. aims of shoring up Palestinian moderates, weakening militant Islamic forces in the region and winning Arab support for U.S. policies toward its adversaries in Iraq and Iran. With Arab expectations high, some are predicting that an inconclusive outcome at the peace conference would set off a new round of Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting.

"The entire process has numerous weaknesses," said Amir Kulick, an analyst for Israel's Institute for National Security Studies. "There is a great chance that it will fail."

When Bush called in July for an international peace gathering, he stressed the goal of helping Abbas' West Bank-based secular Fatah administration in its power struggle with Hamas, the militant Islamic movement that weeks earlier had seized control of the Gaza Strip and refuses to renounce violence against Israel.

To that end, administration officials said they wanted Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that are Western allies to attend the conference, endorse the peace effort and aid Abbas' regime financially.

But the Saudis have signaled reluctance to back an inconclusive document at the conference, and the level of their participation remains uncertain. Some analysts predict that the proceedings, provisionally set to be held in Annapolis in mid- to late November, might be delayed.

Israelis and Palestinians last held full-scale peace negotiations in 2001, months after the collapse of talks at Camp David in the final weeks of the Clinton administration. The impasse was followed by a violent Palestinian uprising.

Since then, Israelis and Palestinians have become more skeptical of peacemaking efforts, and conditions in the region - including Hamas' ascendancy in Gaza, Iran's growing strength and America's entanglement in Iraq - appear to weigh heavily against a breakthrough.

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The gathering called by President Bush has come to be viewed in the region as a watershed event that will either accelerate the nascent peace effort or upend it.

Rice has given herself the daunting task of prodding the two sides to try narrowing their differences, in a matter of weeks, on issues that have frustrated peace negotiators for decades and to produce a joint statement of principles for the conference.

But analysts in the region say the gap appears to be unbridgeable.

Abbas has demanded that the two sides go to the conference with a framework agreement for creation of a Palestinian state, a deadline of roughly one year for negotiating the details and an international body to oversee the project.

"This big gathering requires us to go there with a definitive document to pave the way for the final settlement," Abbas told reporters in Cairo last month. Olmert, weakened at home by corruption scandals and a debilitating war last year against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, is reluctant to make concessions. Aides say he favors a short, vague "declaration of interests" to emerge from the current discussions and seeks to leave any future negotiations open-ended.

The impasse has persisted during the two leaders' private meetings during the past 10 months. Olmert and Abbas have warmed to each other, but their informal discussions have not produced any language close to an agreement.

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On Monday, when the negotiating teams they had appointed last week held their first working session, it was clear that the sides remained far apart. They suspended the talks and are looking to Rice and her team to bring proposals to bridge their differences.

But it remains to be seen whether the Americans will be willing to take on such an activist role.

Bush, sympathetic to Israeli arguments that no outsiders should try to dictate Israel's security needs, has in the past directed Rice to leave it to the two sides to see what they could work out.

A senior Bush administration official, who asked to remain unidentified, said Rice would "push, prod, cajole and make suggestions," to the two sides, but added that "ultimately, the two sides have to take ownership of the decisions."

This official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy, insisted that the talks between the two sides are only in their earliest stage and still have a good chance of success.

Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he believes the administration will try to calculate whether the two sides are close enough that an American push to bridge them could pay off.

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If they are too far apart, he said, the administration may delay the November conference to reduce its downside risk.

But that would create another risk. Propagandists for Hamas, Syria and other potential spoilers - the militant forces Bush is trying to weaken - would inevitably exploit a delay or any outcome that gives the Palestinians less than what Abbas seeks.

Abbas and his Fatah movement are preparing for such a letdown. One adviser said the movement is debating whether to continue with open-ended negotiations brokered by Rice or snub Washington by returning to a power-sharing deal with Hamas and even resuming armed attacks against Israel.

"The November meeting is going to be a threshold event for Abbas," said Mouin Rabbani, a senior Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based think tank. "If he doesn't bring home the goods, he faces a crisis of credibility and will have to compensate by seeking agreements with rival Palestinian factions. He would be weaker, and Hamas would be stronger."

During the summer, Bush's strategy looked more promising.

The Hamas takeover in Gaza had united Olmert, Abbas and the diplomatic quartet of Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations behind a common cause to encourage Palestinians in the territory to desert Hamas and follow Abbas' reformed Palestinian Authority.

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Olmert began meeting more frequently with Abbas and released 255 Palestinian prisoners in July.

But positions began to harden after Olmert, through an aide, floated a trial proposal in July: Israel would keep major Jewish settlements built on 5 percent to 8 percent of West Bank land seized in the 1967 war, swapping it for a comparable area of land elsewhere; Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem would be transferred to a Palestinian state; Palestinians who became refugees when Israel was created would be allowed to settle in the new Palestinian state but not in Israel, and an international fund would be set up to pay for their rehabilitation.

The proposals would have brought the two sides closer to agreement on refugees and Jerusalem, with a gap remaining on borders; Abbas demands a return of 98 percent of the West Bank.

But Olmert came under attack inside his broad-based coalition and his centrist Kadima party. Ehud Barak, who is jockeying for Olmert's job and serves as his defense minister, warned against a "withdrawal from Israeli principles that have stood for 40 years, merely to gain favor in the eyes of an American president who is leaving office in a year."

The gap between the two sides, said Israeli analyst Kulick, underscores the risk that the U.S.-sponsored conference will be canceled or "serve as nothing more than a photo opportunity."

"This would further undermine the United States' regional standing, lead to a further weakening of the diplomatic effort in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, and throw contacts between the sides into ongoing stagnation."

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Richard Boudreaux and Paul Richter write for the Los Angeles Times.


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