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U.S. voices optimism on talks

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government sent formal invitations to more than 100 diplomats expected to attend a Middle East conference in Annapolis on Tuesday, according to U.S. officials who formally announced the conference last night after a daylong delay.

The conference, intended by President Bush to give impetus for future hard negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, was formally announced only after Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made last-minute calls to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and others, White House and State Department officials said.

The officials would not say whether the Saudis, whose participation is deemed critical, will send their foreign minister, as other nations have indicated they will do, or a lower-level official.

The proceedings will begin with separate meetings at the White House on Monday between Bush and the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. That will be followed by a dinner at the State Department, hosted by Bush.

Diplomats will gather on the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy the next day for a "substantive" speech by Bush, followed by a working lunch and closed-door session of speechmaking expected to stretch through the afternoon, officials said.

On Wednesday, Bush will hold another round of separate meetings at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"We feel we have critical mass to move forward" on peace talks between the two countries after the conference concludes, C. David Welch, the State Department's top Mideast official, told reporters.

But no negotiations will take place next week, U.S. officials said. It was also unclear how Rice, who will be master of ceremonies at Tuesday's discussions in Annapolis, will accommodate all those who want to make speeches.

"We will not turn the microphones off for anyone," Welch promised.

In one indication of the difficulties that lie ahead on issues that have divided Palestinians and Israelis for 60 years, State Department officials acknowledged that the two sides have been unable to agree on a joint statement that was intended to be the centerpiece of the summit meeting.

After weeks of negotiations, Abbas and Olmert said this week that they were still divided on such key issues as Israeli settlements in the West Bank and security arrangements between the two sides.

Abbas, backed by the Saudis, had sought greater Israeli concessions on the settlements, Palestinian officials said, noting that the "road map" to peace engineered by the Bush administration in 2003 called for an Israeli freeze on "all settlement activities." The joint statement had been intended to be a blueprint for negotiations to begin after Annapolis.

"They are still working on that," said Welch. "We'll see what they come up with, but it's not finished."

Arab states will consider the unfinished joint statement at a meeting in Cairo tomorrow evening and Friday morning before deciding whether to accept their invitations.

The participation of the Saudis and other moderate Arab states has been considered critical, analysts said, because of the U.S. intent to form a coalition of moderate Arabs and Israel against Iran. It is the promise of significant Israeli concessions at the conference, they added, that would entice Saudi participation.

The effort to assemble the conference has been strenuous, Welch said, with Rice and other U.S. diplomats working from 4 a.m. until "close to midnight" every day for the past three weeks to put the meeting together.

Formal announcement of the conference, which had been scheduled for yesterday morning, was delayed until after 6 p.m.

Asked for his minimum expectations for the conference, Welch said, "If this is the launching pad for serious efforts between the two to negotiate a Palestinian state as part of a realization of a comprehensive peace, that is a total change. It transforms the situation and offers the real possibility of serious work between the two of them on the day after to try to achieve those goals," he said, speaking of Olmert and Abbas.

But he declined to call the proceedings a "peace conference," asking instead that the meetings be called "the Annapolis conference."

"I love Annapolis," he said. "It's wonderfully American."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack warned that Marylanders could experience "some disruptions" around Annapolis as representatives of more than 40 nations swarm into the walled grounds of the Naval Academy.

"Our folks, diplomatic security along with the Secret Service and all the people working on the arrangements for Annapolis, have been working very closely with state and local officials on the planning for this conference," McCormack said.

"When you have this number of people descending on one place in a restricted period of time, there are probably going to be some disruptions. But we're doing everything we can to make sure that any disruptions are minimal. And we certainly appreciate the hospitality that we are being shown, and I'm sure that will be shown to all of our guests."

"And I have to say, they've been great - the state and local level, as well as folks out at the Naval Academy," he said.

The international diplomacy has been more difficult. But McCormack portrayed the jockeying and uncertainty as normal.

"Very often, when you get closer to an event such as Annapolis, that focuses people's attention and it becomes very real" as to what they will do at the conference and what their obligations are afterwards, McCormack said.

The negotiations that began closing disagreements "yard by yard" slow to pushing forward "foot by foot" and then "inch by inch," he said.

"I can assure you that there's a lot of hard work going into this," McCormack said.

Bush also spoke yesterday with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin about the conference, said Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman. Russia is a member of the "quartet" that oversees Mideast negotiations, along with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

Forty countries are on the invitation list, including China, Libya, Norway and South Africa. Syria has been invited, but not Iran. Also attending will be U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, acting as a special Mideast envoy for the European Union; and diplomats from the Arab League and World Bank.

The "road map," a detailed plan devised in 2003 under the auspices of the United States, European Union, the United Nations and Russia, calls for an immediate cessation of violence by the Palestinians and a freeze on Israeli "settlement activity" in the West Bank. The plan was derailed by growing Israeli-Palestinian violence during the summer of 2003 and has been dormant ever since.

"You should look at Annapolis, really, as almost a beginning of something new, as opposed to an end point, in and of itself," McCormack said. "But it is an important event and the parties are working hard, in the run-up to it. We're working hard in the run-up to it, as well as others.

"It is unfolding as we had hoped."

Amid preparations for the conference, the State Department announced that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, had agreed to a new round of meetings on security with the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad. No date was set for the talks.

david.wood@baltsun.com

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