WASHINGTON -- With a proposed Mideast peace conference in Annapolis only weeks away, the lofty goals outlined by President Bush seem to be fading beyond reach, with the meeting likely to be scaled back to a single day, according to senior U.S. officials and outside analysts.
The conference, originally expected to be set for late November, might not be held until mid-December, a State Department official hinted yesterday. Bush's spokeswoman called preparations for the conference "tenuous right now."
"We're hopeful it will come together," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. "We have a long ways to go."
The meeting was originally envisioned for Nov. 26-28, though no dates were announced.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not confirm that the conference will take place in November.
"Look for something before winter - which means Dec. 21," he told reporters.
Conference invitations, expected to be extended to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and to representatives of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and the Gulf states, "have not yet been issued," McCormack said. "Stay tuned."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - who has pushed for what might be the last chance for the Bush administration to help arrest a deteriorating situation in the Middle East - has conceded that she does not expect Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to draft a joint statement before the meeting laying out "the basics of a deal" that she and others had anticipated.
The focus now, she said this week, is "more on the day after" Annapolis. "The day after," she said, "is when you have to get down to the business of trying to come to an agreement."
About the conference, "I don't expect it to be going on for several days," she said in an interview Tuesday with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Events could change quickly, diplomats caution, and agreements and arrangements for Annapolis could fall into place rapidly. Rice is to travel to the region this week to continue discussions, a White House official said.
But the last-minute uncertainty about the timing and substance of the Annapolis conference has renewed concerns about a failure to make progress that could energize radicals and extremists in the region, rather than galvanize moderates to work for peace, as Bush intended.
"I am worried. This is an ill-conceived and ill-prepared summit," said Daniel Levy, who was an Israeli negotiator during the last Arab-Israeli negotiations in 2002.
"You could describe Annapolis as an obstacle. How do we get to the other side without damage to the Israeli and Palestinian leadership?" Levy said this week in a briefing sponsored by the New America Foundation.
Warning to Bush, Rice
A failure to achieve concrete results would have "devastating consequences in the region and beyond," according to a recent statement by a bipartisan group of foreign policy heavyweights, including former White House national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, former diplomats Thomas Pickering and Carla Hills, and others.
"The outcome of the conference must be substantive, inclusive and relevant to the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians," they wrote in a letter last month to Bush and Rice. They suggested, for example, a freeze on Israeli settlements, a prisoner exchange, prevention of weapons smuggling, dismantling of Israeli outposts, and removal of Israeli checkpoints.
Such small-scale achievements are probably the best outcome that could be expected from Annapolis, said Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's a mistake to go for too much," he said.
But even discussing the dismantling of checkpoints and other confidence-building measures has been difficult.
On Sunday, Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei was on his way from the West Bank to Jerusalem for talks with Israel on such measures when he was stopped and detained at an Israeli checkpoint outside the city. Eventually, the negotiating session was canceled.
McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said Israeli and Palestinian negotiators "are still working" on a joint statement on the next steps toward a comprehensive peace.
"There's a lot of work to be done," he said. "I fully expect they will be prepared for Annapolis, and part of that means coming to agreement on a document."
He declined to say what specifics he expected the conference document to contain.
'Got my hands full'
In announcing the conference in July, Bush reaffirmed his desire for a "viable and contiguous" Palestinian state. Casting the region's conflicts as a struggle between extremists and moderates, Bush called on moderate Arab states to take "an active part" in promoting negotiations toward "a permanent end" to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The uncertainty over the conference, and the peace process, comes as multiple foreign concerns are pressing on the administration, including government upheaval in Pakistan, the start of a U.S. troop reduction in Iraq, efforts to shutter North Korea's nuclear program, and U.S. attempts to tighten international sanctions on Iran. "I've got my hands full," Rice observed this week.
The lack of a firm date has officials at the U.S. Naval Academy waiting for word on what facilities negotiators will use and how long they will stay. An academy spokeswoman referred all questions on the meeting to the State Department.
In appearances over the past week, Rice has said there is a "convergence" of moderates in the region on restarting the peace process that stalled seven years ago. "I do not deny that the present moment is challenging and complicated, but when has the Middle East ever been unchallenging or uncomplicated?" Rice said in a speech Tuesday to the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Nashville.
She said Arab-Israeli relations are "frankly better than they were a few years ago. And we now have a real opportunity to seek peace." Given the stakes, she said, "no one can afford failure" in Annapolis. "Not acting is failure, in these circumstances."
A key problem affecting the outcome at Annapolis, according to former U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross, is the political weakness of both Abbas and Olmert.
Abbas' party, Fatah, lost parliamentary elections in January 2006 to the rival Palestinian party of Hamas. After Abbas dismissed the government, Hamas seized control of the Gaza strip in gunbattles in June.
Olmert, criticized for his conduct of the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon last year, heads a cantankerous coalition government.
An agreement between the two men will require extremely difficult compromise on core beliefs, Ross said. "In my experience, strong leaders can do that," he said. "Not so easy for weak leaders. We don't have, from a political standpoint, strong leaders on either side, and it's not clear they have strong bases of support."