Many diplomats have welcomed the proposal by US President George W. Bush for peace talks between leaders from Israel, Palestinians, and select regional powers. But questions remain about the prospects of success as the talks exclude Hamas and states that have denied Israel's right to exist, such as Iran.
An Arab-Israeli meeting of this magnitude has not taken place since 1991, when President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, held a peace conference in Madrid with Soviet sponsorship, reports The New York Times. Still, some observers speculate that Bush, who called for an independent Palestinian state in 2002 but failed to take any notable diplomatic action, may be returning to the Palestinian question now to take the spotlight off Iraq and build goodwill among Arab allies.
The planned meeting, the first of its kind in Mr. Bush's presidency, signals another pivotal shift for an administration that is desperately seeking some kind of foreign policy victory in the volatile Middle East that would draw attention away from the war in Iraq. For several years, the Bush administration has eschewed direct engagement in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and has refused to press Israel to dismantle settlements or to sit down at the table with Palestinian counterparts to discuss a future Palestinian state.
Despite his administration's absence from the peace process, Bush has renewed his commitment to the two embattled neighbors, promising to focus on the issue during the final 18 months of his presidency. A location for the conference, which will be led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has yet to be determined and invitations have not been sent out. The Washington Post reports that while the conference would be a step forward, it will be "less inclusive" than the one hosted by former president Bush in 1991.
"Recent days have brought a chapter of upheaval and uncertainty in the Middle East," Bush said in a speech in the main foyer of the White House. "But the story does not have to end that way. ... In the face of terror and cynicism and anger, we stand on the side of peace in the Holy Land."
Bush's conference ... would bring together Israel, the Palestinian Authority [PA] and unspecified "neighbors in the region," but it could be less inclusive than the last major U.S.-sponsored Arab-Israeli conference, which was organized by President George H.W. Bush in Madrid in 1991. Unlike his father, the president invited only those that "recognize Israel's right to exist," seemingly excluding potent actors in the region such as Iran and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group.
In particular, the exclusion of Hamas may prove a contentious issue. While Bush has said he hopes this conference may lead to a final peace agreement, he has sided with the Fatah-led government in the West Bank, reports The Independent. Peace, said Bush, would depend on Palestinians "rejecting violence," a comment that was probably aimed at the Hamas-led government in Gaza.
Last night, Mr Bush said the takeover of Gaza by Hamas had shown the movement's "devotion to terrorism and murder". He also sought to reinforce the international isolation of Hamas by making clear his approval of Mr Abbas's expulsion ... of the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh [from the government] by saying that the Palestinian people now had a choice between a "future of decency and hope" over a "future of terrorism and death".
Any peace deal will also require Israel to make concessions, reports Haaretz. In an unusual departure, Bush referred to the Israeli presence in the West Bank as an "occupation" during his address last night. He encouraged Israel to abandon its unauthorized outposts, end settlement construction, and "find other practical ways to reduce their footprint without reducing their security." He also praised Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has promoted developing areas like the Negev and Galilee instead of "continuing the occupation of the West Bank." Bush's plan has drawn mixed responses so far.
Not everyone sees Bush's plan as practical. Anti-Defamation League Director Abe Foxman told Haaretz that the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict must first arrive at a peace agreement, and only then hold an international conference to discuss ways and means to strengthen the peace. He said Bush's speech expressed a final attempt by the current administration to promote Middle East peace, and said that the president placed the responsibility on the PA and the moderate Arab states.
The Los Angeles Times reports that "most observers are deeply pessimistic about the prospects for peace." Still, Bush hopes that the inclusion of other regional powers will produce fruitful results at the conference. In particular he hopes to include upper-level Saudi diplomats. Saudi Arabia is a close US ally but has no diplomatic relationship with Israel. In the face of serious doubts, David Welch, the assistant secretary of State for the Middle East, contends that there's "reason for optimism."
"We wouldn't be launching ourselves on this enterprise if we didn't feel some confidence that there is a willingness in the region to embrace the path to peace," Welch said.
But U.S. officials acknowledged that they were only beginning to issue invitations to the fall meeting, at which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would preside. ... President Bush called Saudi King Abdullah, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday afternoon, officials said.
While it remains uncertain exactly which Arab leaders will participate, The Jordan Times reports that Jordanian King Abdullah II welcomed Bush's call on Monday and referred to the talks as a "step in the right direction."
"The call would open the door for tangible progress in the peace process, which should lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in line with a two-state solution," the King told Bush over the telephone.
Bush's renewed push for peace is likely to benefit former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his new role as envoy for the Middle East Quartet, composed of members from the US, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, reports The Daily Telegraph. Already, the US has plans to provide nearly $190 million in aid to assist the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Mr Blair, who is expected to travel to the Middle East next week, has been charged with building up Palestinian institutions in the West Bank following the seizure of Gaza by the Islamic militant group Hamas a month ago.