Washington - The White House is facing a growing stream of criticism that it is not doing enough to prepare for an upcoming international conference that some hoped could reignite peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The Bush administration was the impetus behind the November conference, which is supposed to show Arab and international support for the Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority and to set the direction for a future final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Yet with less than two months before the conference kicks off, little is known about its nature and even less about the content of the talks.
“No one has any idea what this conference will look like,” said an Arab diplomat in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are still waiting for the United States to come forward and tell us what is happening.”
Other Arab officials also expressed disappointment over the lack of leadership and planning on behalf of America in advance of the summit.
The November conference is the Bush administration’s most significant attempt in recent years to kick-start the Middle East peace process. But during the past week, Israeli leaders have lowered expectations for a major breakthrough and the Palestinians have said that they may boycott the event.
Scrutiny of America’s role in all this has been particularly sharp as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepared to travel to the region for another round of shuttle diplomacy.
During a press briefing before the trip, on Monday, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch explicitly tempered any great expectations for the conference. Welch avoided discussing which countries would be invited to the conference, the conditions for attendance, and the content and goals of the meeting.
Welch, one of the key administration officials dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, did attempt to add a shade of optimism to his report on the situation. He said there was “some encouraging progress in the Israeli-Palestinian summit meetings so far” and added that “it might be possible even in two months to aggregate these in a way that really gives a sense that we turned a new page.”
Sources say that while Rice is on her trip, she will refrain from holding any trilateral meetings involving the discussion of the conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Rice decided in the early stages of her term not to intervene in the details of the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and instead has insisted on having leaders on both sides sit together regularly to discuss the core issues of the conflict.
For the current conference, Rice’s strategy is winning unfavorable comparisons to past peace efforts led by the United States.
Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, said that “the administration is taking the anti-Madrid approach,” referring to the 1991 Madrid peace conference arranged by then secretary of state James Baker. Back then, it took Baker nine trips to the region and 60,000 miles by plane to make the Madrid conference happen.
Aaron David Miller, a former state department official, was on Baker’s Middle East team during that conference. “Now,” he said, “we have not yet seen the amount of preparation and the serious diplomacy that needs to be done on our side.”
Miller, whose book “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace” is due for publication in March 2008, stressed that an effort should be made to ensure that the peace conference leads to sustainable results, not just a random peak.
“If it turns out to be the diplomatic parallel of the military surge, then it did not succeed,” Miller said, referencing the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq.
Diplomatic sources in Washington explained this week that a great part of the ambiguity surrounding the November conference stems from the administration’s concern that political pressure on both sides will make it impossible for Abbas and Olmert to talk about the substance of the conference at such an early stage.
Israel still has a number of outstanding concerns that have led it to downplay expectations for the conference. One of those issues is the capacity of Palestinian forces to control the West Bank and block terror attacks. So far, Israeli security authorities do not see Abbas’s forces as being close to reaching that goal, and thus they will not make to the Israeli government a recommendation that it make any concessions on the ground.
Olmert made clear last week that he is not interested in a signed agreement with Abbas at the outset of the conference but only in a declaration of principles.
Abbas, on the other hand, is reportedly considering skipping the conference altogether because he is uncertain of its outcome. “He can live without a conference,” an Abbas aide was quoted as saying by the Reuters news agency.
Beyond Abbas, the list of participants at the conference is very much up in the air. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported this week that the United States does not want Syria around the table, though American officials have not made any public statement on the issue. It is also not clear yet whether Saudi Arabia will attend.
To complicate matters further, Congress is now weighing in on the invite list. Two leading senators, New York Democrat Charles Schumer and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, began circulating a letter to Rice calling her to press friendly Arab countries to adhere to a set of measures before being invited to the table. These measures included taking actions in support of the Palestinian government; cutting support for terrorist groups; ending anti-Israeli and antisemitic incitement; ending the Arab boycott against Israel, and recognizing Israel’s right to exist.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group, is backing the Schumer-Graham letter, while the Arab American Institute came out against it. In a statement, it said, “If the goal is for Arab states not to participate in the upcoming conference, this would be the way to go.”