Jump-starting The Stalled Mideast Peace Process

Annapolis, Md.-- In a first for his administration, President Bush Tuesday played host to a Middle East peace conference--a one-day affair that formally launched regular Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on the starkly difficult issues that will make or break an eventual peace deal establishing an independent Palestinian state.

Israelis and Palestinians said they would aim for an agreement by the end of 2008--just before Bush leaves office. Many analysts, though, are skeptical of reaching an accord on that timetable and recall that a 2003 U.S.-led Mideast peace "road map" broke down far short of its goal of a comprehensive peace accord by 2005.

Still, guarded optimism was the message of the day. "We're off to a strong start," Bush said to an audience of nearly 50 diplomatic delegations gathered on the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy in this Chesapeake Bay city. Bush reiterated the goal of establishing a Palestinian state existing in peace with Israel, but he also sounded a note of caution reflecting the narrower expectations U.S. officials have given to the Annapolis conference. "Achieving this goal is not going to be easy," he said. "If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago."

Just getting to a conference designed to symbolize international backing for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort required numerous Mideast trips in recent months by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The last such international gathering on Mideast peace dates back to the late days of the Clinton administration, and President Bush's sparing engagement in peace mediation has drawn considerable criticism from former U.S. officials. In recent weeks, Rice had to struggle to secure commitments from some Arab countries to send high-level diplomatic representation. In the end, even Syria--at odds with the United States over Lebanon and its ties to Iran--sent a delegation.

Before making his remarks, Bush met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; he will see them again Wednesday at the White House. Bush announced that the two sides will "immediately launch good-faith, bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception."

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are now supposed to meet continuously, and Olmert and Abbas are to meet biweekly. But both leaders, who are generally credited by Mideast analysts as having good intentions, are in very weak positions at home; Olmert is politically unpopular and Abbas has lost control of the Gaza Strip--home to roughly 1.5 million Palestinians--to the radical Islamic group Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel.

The Bush administration is expanding its involvement in the peace process by joining in a three-party effort to see that confidence-building steps in security and other issues are carried out in parallel with the new negotiations. U.S. officials will now "monitor and judge the fulfillment of the commitment of both sides" to those actions.

Despite politically weakened governments in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Bush asserted that "now is precisely the right time to begin these negotiations." He cited three reasons: Abbas and Olmert are determined to seek peace; extremists vying for political power among Palestinians and throughout the region need to be thwarted; and international, especially Arab, support is strong.

Some U.S. officials think that sentiments may be shifting among Arab leaders, who now may want a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a step toward weakening the regional influence of Iran. Iran is a major backer of anti-Israel radical groups Hamas and Hezbollah, and Tehran's support of Palestinian extremists provides a measure of public validation in many Arab countries.

Even his remarks suggested that Bush views the peace effort as critical to addessing the political grievances that complicate the U.S. war on terrorism. U.S. officials see the effort as helpful in galvanizing opposition to Iranian moves to expand its regional influence and build up a disputed nuclear program.

Bush did not mention by name Hamas, the Islamist movement labeled by the U.S. as a terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip. Its often lethal rivalry with Abbas's nationalist Fatah movement has stripped Abbas of much of his sway over Palestinian society, and Hamas has denounced Abbas for even coming to Annapolis. On the Israeli side, Olmert has proved a politically unpopular figure whose administration has been hit by corruption scandals and whose military campaign against the radical group Hezbollah in Lebanon last year has come under withering criticism.

The weakness of both leaders stokes doubts that they are capable of selling deep concessions on the core "final status" issues: the future of Jerusalem, the drawing of borders, the so-called "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel, and the myriad unresolved security issues.

Signs of the difficulties to come were immediately apparent. Abbas said that mostly Arab East Jerusalem would have to serve as the future Palestinian capital, and he called for Israel to halt all settlement growth in the West Bank, release Palestinian prisoners, and stop building a separation wall that Israelis regard as a key security measure against terrorists. Abbas suggested that Israel had used terrorist attacks as "a pretext to maintain the status quo and pursue the current practices that we suffer from every day."

Olmert cited past disappointments with the Palestinians' inability to rein in extremists and establish effective security agencies, allowing, "I had many good reasons not to come here to this meeting." He called on Arab states to recognize Israel. And though he cautiously praised an Arab League land-for-peace initiative, he did not endorse it in the form that Arab countries have called for.

Still, Olmert added, "we are ready" for renewed talks, calling it "this long, tormenting, and complex path, for which there is no substitute."

By Thomas Omestad