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Uphill climb for Rice on Mideast peace

On Sunday, she begins her seventh trip to the region this year to plan November conference.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 12, 2007


As the Bush administration moves to revive the long-dormant Middle East peace process – most notably by calling Israeli and Palestinian leaders to an international conference to be held next month outside Washington – pressure is building for a White House to deliver on its new quest for peace.

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On Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes her seventh trip to the region this year to try to bridge gaping differences between the Israelis and Palestinians on just how ambitious the conference should be. With the agenda still up in the air, major players like Saudi Arabia noncommittal about attendance, and the date still not set, influential former diplomats and policymakers are beginning to go public with worries that time is running short.

"I have no doubt at all that all this will take a very substantial effort, a very robust effort," says Lee Hamilton, the former congressman who joined a bipartisan list of foreign-policy notables who addressed a letter to President Bush this week on steps for a successful conference and peace process. "I see this as the last chance for the president to make a lasting legacy of peace in this area."

'Statement of understandings'

Secretary Rice will be trying to narrow the differences over a preconference document or "statement of understandings" that could determine prospects for negotiations through the end of the Bush presidency. Israel wants to stick with vague principles such as two states living side by side in peace, while the Palestinians insist on listing specific points the conference would begin to address, like borders and barriers to the movement of people. Closing the gap will be a test of both US leadership and its seriousness about what will be perhaps the most arduous diplomatic effort of the Bush presidency.

As Rice makes her stops in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah, she'll tote armloads of recommendations from top former diplomats and regional experts who want to see this peace initiative continue beyond the November conference, which is to be held in Annapolis, Md. Many have gone public in recent days with what they see as "crucial" steps for the US to take – from reconfirming the principle of making Jerusalem the capital of two states to avoiding the isolation of Hamas.

"Without a consensual grand framework, there's a real risk these negotiations would produce nothing, and that would be a very severe setback for peace negotiations in the Middle East," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter and a participant in the 1977 Camp David negotiations.

Mr. Brzezinski joined Mr. Hamilton; Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to the elder President Bush; and others in addressing a letter to Rice and the current president, calling for the conference to be "inclusive," to "deal with substance," and to go beyond "lofty political statements" to "produce results."

The group commends the White House for inviting Syria to the conference, but also calls for a "genuine dialogue" with the Islamist organization Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip, calling that "far preferable to its isolation."