A lowly Mideast summit?

CAIRO, Egypt — CAIRO, Egypt -- The coming Israeli-Palestinian peace conference resembles a dinner party with a less-than-inspiring menu and a bunch of well-tailored yet exasperated guests who, if they show up at all, doubt that anyone will go home happy.

Posturing and recrimination often characterize such negotiations, but Arab capitals, including Washington's closest allies, are criticizing the November conference in Annapolis as a miscalculated photo-op by a Bush administration desperate to repair its image across the Middle East. Iran's supreme leader urged Muslim leaders yesterday not to attend the conference, saying that the meeting would hurt the Palestinians.


"Efforts are being made to once again make an imposition on the Palestinian people in the name of peace. ... The result of all conferences held in the name of peace so far have been to the detriment of the Palestinian nation," Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in a speech marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Mustafa Alani, an analyst with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, said the meeting is not an effort to save the Palestinians.


"It's an attempt to prop up the administration's very low standing in the Arab world," Alani said. "Saudi Arabia and other Washington allies will lose a lot of credibility if this is just to take part in an American show."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to visit the region to persuade Arab capitals to send at least ministry-level officials to the meeting. But analysts and media in the Middle East complain that Washington has not done the diplomatic legwork needed to advance peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

"Everybody knows what's at stake," said Mohamed El-Sayed Said, an analyst with the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "But the conference is very mushy. It is far from certain how outstanding issues such as the Palestinian question, the Arab-Israeli peace and other concerns like Palestinian refugees will be addressed."

The summit comes as America's allies in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are less circumspect than they once were in criticizing U.S. policy. The Iraq war, growing Islamic extremism and the Israel-Palestinian equation are regarded as failures whose effects will agitate the region long after Bush leaves office.

Riyadh, Cairo and Amman have tried, with limited success, to stitch together a unified regional voice to overcome what they see as Washington's mistakes, which have become more pronounced against the specter of Iran's meddling influence.

The critical question around the conference from the Arab perspective is how, if at all, the U.S. can spur Israel to advance the 1993 Oslo Accords and move closer to a Palestinian state. The other issue is resolving the internal strife among the Palestinians, whose allegiances are split between President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party in the West Bank the radical Islamic group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The violent break between the two earlier this year reverberated across the region, lifting Hamas' stature as a defiant alternative to political parties and regimes considered by many Arabs as too close to Washington.

Hamas' popularity has had consequences for Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Both are trying to contain, through imprisonment and rewriting election laws, their radical Muslim Brotherhood parties. A peace conference that fails to give the moderate and U.S.-backed Abbas some sense of Palestinian victory would embolden political opposition in Egypt and Jordan, where displaced Palestinians make up half the population.


These countries partly blame the United States for their current standoffs with the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2005, the Bush administration urged Middle East allies, long criticized for human-rights abuses, to be more democratic as a means to fight terrorism. A loosening of state restrictions helped the Islamic organization win nearly 20 percent of the seats in the Egyptian Parliament. The gains of a radical political party were not what the United States intended and resulted in Amman and Cairo cracking down on dissent and jailing hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members

"Being an American ally is already risky for all these moderate Arab countries," said Randa Habib, a writer and political analyst in Jordan. "The Jordanian regime is concerned that the Palestinian-Israeli conference will take place without preparation and there will be no substantive outcome."

She added that the Arab capitals and Washington appear to be speaking to each other from parallel realities.

Rice is shuttling through the region to draw support for a meeting many of her hosts would prefer to be taken off the calendar. In fact, Arab officials note, the conference's exact date is still not known.

"I think the regimes want to convince Rice ... that this is not the right time for a peace conference," Habib said. "The whole conference looks very mysterious and suspicious, and that's not good in a part of the world that thrives on conspiracy theories."

The meeting is unlikely to notably address wider Middle East tensions, such as the possibility of Israel turning over the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Syrian President Bashar Assad has said he won't attend if the Golan Heights is not discussed. Israeli President Ehud Olmert said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be the focus.


This limited agenda would increase the prospect that Syria and its ally Iran might try to inflame the region.

"Iran will try and sabotage the conference with its influence in Syria and maybe Lebanon, but it can't prevent it," Alani said. He added that such a move would be countered by Saudi Arabia, which is wary of the conference but doesn't want to see even a poorly planned U.S. effort fail.

"The Saudis are the key," Alani said. "Who they send to the conference will reflect their trust and belief in Washington's abilities. There's a vacuum of power in the Arab world, and Saudi Arabia is rising to fill it. ... The Saudis want some clear outcome for the conference or it's not worth their participation."

But whom the Arab world will send has become an enticing bit of gamesmanship.

"The chemistry between Bush and Mubarak has always been bad," Said said. "Mubarak won't go to the conference. It'll probably be a [lower-level] official, or possibly the foreign minister. No one really wants to take responsibility for entirely losing President Bush or to send a negative signal about the peace process."

Jeffrey Fleishman writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.