WASHINGTON -- A White House-sponsored conference on Middle East peace is to be held in Annapolis next Tuesday, with senior representatives from Arab and European capitals expected to attend in support of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a U.S. official familiar with planning for the event said yesterday.
The date of the event had been an open secret for weeks, but officials have yet to formally announce it. A conference schedule is expected to be unveiled in Washington today, along with a list of those who will attend the one-day meeting.
The tentative schedule calls for a dinner at the State Department on Monday evening with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as host, followed Tuesday by sessions at the U.S. Naval Academy, where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other diplomats will make presentations.
A White House ceremony is expected to be held Wednesday morning, the official said.
With the gathering barely a week away, officials were scrambling to make last-minute preparations. The State Department intended to send out dozens of formal invitations early today, the Associated Press reported, although Rice has been in contact with most of the invited dignitaries for weeks.
The invitees reportedly will include Syria, in its role as a member of an Arab League delegation that includes Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and Yemen. Also expected to attend are delegations from Britain , France, Germany, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
Syria is listed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism for its support of Hamas, the radical Palestinian organization that seized control of the Gaza Strip in June, and Hezbollah, which fought a violent war with Israel in July and August 2006.
It was not immediately clear whether the invited countries would send their foreign ministers or choose to be represented at a lower level. Details of how the conference will unfold are still being worked out, a U.S. official said.
Despite the expanded guest list, expectations for the conference, already scaled back to a single day of talks, have dwindled since Bush proposed the summit earlier this year as a major push toward a comprehensive Middle East peace and to bolster a coalition of moderate Arabs against Iran.
In recent days, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have proved unable to agree on a joint "statement of principles" that U.S. diplomats hoped would lay out areas of agreement and detail a concrete agenda for follow-up negotiations.
Repeatedly over the past weeks, Rice has emphasized that the value of the Annapolis conference will lie not in agreements reached there but in the momentum generated for further negotiations.
Israel announced yesterday that it intended to release 441 Palestinian prisoners, far short of the release of 2,000 Palestinian prisoners that Abbas had demanded. Also, Olmert repeated assurances that Israel would build no new settlements in the West Bank.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack expressed the hope that such unilateral offers are steps that "both sides can build on, where they can build up that mutual confidence and try to improve daily lives on both sides, for the Palestinians as well as the Israelis."
But the two sides failed to reach agreement on further concrete measures that some analysts say are critical to gaining solid public backing for months of difficult negotiations that could lie ahead. These measures include Israeli demands for increased Palestinian responsibility for security and Palestinian demands that Israel dismantle some of the roughly 550 checkpoints in the West Bank.
"I do not recommend that anyone overstate its importance and create exaggerated expectations," Olmert said of the Annapolis conference.
Next week's conference is meant to resume the progress toward a Middle East agreement that faltered seven years ago, when negotiations on the permanent status of a Palestinian state broke off as anti-Israeli violence escalated in the second intifada.
The talks will come almost precisely 60 years after the United Nations set out an ill-fated plan to divide Palestine between Israeli and Palestinian regions, and 30 years after Egypt's President Anwar Sadat flew to Jerusalem in a dramatic gesture that eventually brought a signed peace accord with Israel, brokered at Camp David by President Jimmy Carter.
The diplomats will convene in Annapolis at a time when the United States is preoccupied with growing political turbulence in nuclear-armed Pakistan and with efforts to halt what the White House says is a nuclear weapons program in Iran.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah is contesting presidential elections. Rice called Lebanese President Fouad Siniora yesterday to reiterate U.S. support.
In Israel's Gaza Strip, Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in January 2006 and seized power there in June, has warned against any compromise with Israel.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who had been working with Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei on a draft of a joint statement for next week's conference, warned that negotiating with the Palestinian Authority "does not and must not prevent us from taking action anytime to contend with terrorist activities," according to a statement by the Israeli government.
State Department spokesman McCormack dismissed much of the pre-conference rhetoric.
"I think you can expect to see a lot of posturing in public, both on the record as well as on background statements, from all the parties involved here," he told reporters. He said Israeli and Palestinian negotiators "are continuing to make progress, not only on the [joint] document, but also on what comes after Annapolis."
Rice, who had been expected to make a last trip to the region before Tuesday's conference, spoke by phone yesterday with Olmert and Abbas.