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Meeting is seen as a beginning

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Tomorrow's Mideast peace conference, behind the walls that guard the U.S. Naval Academy campus, is surrounded by misconceptions. For starters, it's not a negotiation.

No one will be locking Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into a room, there to stay until they've solved some of the Middle East's thorniest problems. Much of the arm-twisting associated with the conference will already have occurred by the time the leaders arrive in Annapolis -- it's what President Bush and the State Department have been doing for weeks, just to get them to show up.

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Nor is it clear that the one-day meeting will produce anything very substantial. Administration officials said they are hoping that Olmert and Abbas will at least agree to a joint statement that would point the way to a Palestinian state and an end to the decades-old conflict.

In an effort to keep expectations in check, the State Department has pitched the conference as a "launching pad" for talks, an opportunity to bring the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority together in the presence of more than 40 other nations -- including Saudi Arabia and at least 14 other Arab states -- and commit to future negotiations.

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"The success of this meeting is really in the launch of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians for the establishment of a Palestinian state and therefore a two-state solution," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters last week. "We did think it was important to bring the international community together in order to support what has to be a bilateral process."

Tomorrow in Annapolis is planned to play out like a mini-session of the United Nations. Bush will hold a morning meeting with Olmert and Abbas. Then all three will deliver speeches at the conference. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be among the dignitaries present.

Bush will then return to the White House, while the afternoon is given over to a succession of meetings, at which any of the participants -- even those from states with which the United States has strained relations -- may speak. That means that Syria, for example, could take the opportunity to raise the issue of Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights before the assembly, which will meet in a session closed to the news media and public.

"We think it represents an opportunity for all those who would like to make meaningful steps toward peace to come and represent their views," C. David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told reporters last week. "You know, we're the United States, we're affording a platform here for responsible opinion, and they're entitled to express their views and their national interests as they see them. We won't turn off the microphone."

That will make Annapolis very different from landmark summits such as Camp David or Oslo, where Israeli and Arab leaders met privately for days to hammer out agreements. Bush will meet separately with Olmert and Abbas today at the White House and then host a dinner at the State Department for all the participants.

The last time that Israel and the Arab world met around a conference table was in Cairo in 1996, a meeting that drew more than 4,000 political, diplomatic and business leaders. Little was accomplished.

All sides have sought to play down expectations for this week's event. It is, in fact, just one step in a long process that also includes the Clinton parameters of 2000, the Arab peace initiative of 2002 and the Bush "road map" of 2003. The conference comes a week after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair outlined a series of projects designed to bolster the Palestinian economy, and a month before donors meet in Paris to pledge support for the Palestinian Authority.

Still, Annapolis signals U.S. re-engagement in the conflict seven years after the failure of the last Camp David summit, between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which gave way to renewed violence.

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"It's better to have the conference even with limited goals and limited achievements, than just stand aside and wait for the parties to do something," said Saadia Touval, author of The Peace Brokers: Mediators in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Olmert and Abbas have been communicating for weeks in advance of the conference. Rice said the United States is still talking to them about how to follow up on the meeting, and what role the international community will take in continuing talks.

The effort is not without risk.

"The Middle East remains mired in its worst crisis in years, and a positive outcome of the conference could play a critical role in stemming the rising tide of instability and violence," a group of foreign policy experts, including former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft wrote in a letter to Bush and Rice last month. "Because failure risks devastating consequences in the region and beyond, it is critically important that the conference succeed."

Rice has extended invitations to the foreign ministers of more than 40 countries, including members of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the Quartet on the Middle East and the Group of Eight industrialized nations. Saudi Arabia is sending its foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.

The addition during the weekend of Syria's deputy foreign minister as a participant raised expectations that the conference will help advance U.S. aims in the region. The Bush administration has been attempting to draw Syria into the peace process as a counter to Iran, a Syrian ally.

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Conspicuously absent from the guest list is the Hamas party, which won a majority in the Palestinian parliamentary elections last year and now controls the Gaza Strip. Abbas and his Fatah party control the West Bank.

Hamas does not recognize the right of Israel to exist; Israel, the United States and the European Union have labeled it a terrorist organization for its suicide bombings and other attacks against Israeli civilian and military targets, suspected Palestinian collaborators and Fatah rivals.

Hamas was unable to gain much Arab support for a "counter-conference" in Damascus. Members now are dismissing the meeting in Annapolis.

"The delegation of Palestinian negotiators who will participate in the Annapolis conference are not taking the national consensus into account, are acting without a people's mandate and do not have any legitimacy," lawmaker Mushir al-Masri said, according to the French news agency Agence France-Presse.

Rice has called Hamas "a very negative factor for the Palestinian people" and says Abbas has the authority to negotiate on behalf of the population.

"The goal here," she said last week, "is to get to a clear agreement of what the Palestinian state will be -- one that people can see, touch, feel -- and to see, once that is presented to the Palestinian people ... that that would be a unifying force, a unifying element, for Palestinians who are prepared to go to that state and to put aside their conflict, end their conflict with Israel, and to start to deliver for their people."

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Olmert arrives at the meeting damaged by a continuing corruption investigation and with a fragile political coalition that might limit his ability to get public support for concessions. This weekend, Israeli police said they would not announce whether to recommend an indictment until after the conference.

After the speeches tomorrow morning, conference participants will attend meetings on "Demonstrating International Support for the Bilateral Process" and "Economic Development, Institutional Reform and Capacity-Building" in the Palestinian territories, State Department officials said. The day is scheduled to conclude with a session that will address comprehensive peace. Participants might linger afterward for more talks.

Political scientist Arthur C. Abramson said the conference didn't appear to be "on the level" of previous Middle East summits.

"First of all, it is taking place in one day, and that leads me to believe it's largely ceremonial and a place at which certain things will be publicly announced that have largely been agreed to earlier on," said Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

"The idea, I think, is to catalyze other negotiations. It's also, I think, designed to get certain Arab countries to sit across the table from Israel and by their presence, validate the negotiating process and give some backbone to Abbas and allow him to negotiate in ways in which [former Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat was not able to."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com


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