President Bush will preside at a dinner on Monday night in Annapolis, Md., that will mark the beginning of the first major international peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians since the Clinton administration.
The Associated Press reports that Bush is scheduled to make a speech that reiterates his support for the peace process, but that is unlikely to contain any new proposals. Both the Israeli government and the negotiators aligned with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas have sought to lower expectations for the meeting.
(Bush will) make clear that Mideast peace is a top priority for the rest of his time in office through January 2009, but he is not expected to advance any of his own ideas on how to achieve that, Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Sunday.
Clinching a joint statement of objectives from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might prove to be an impossibly tall order because of the charged issues that divide the two sides. On more than one occasion, negotiations have splintered over the key questions of Palestinian statehood — final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who lost homes in Israel following its 1948 creation.
If the two sides can't even manage to come up with a shared statement of objectives, that could augur ill for the future of peace talks, which are to be renewed after seven years of still-simmering violence.
"We're confident there will be a document and we'll get to Annapolis in good shape on that," but bargaining may continue behind the scenes on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
One piece of good news for the conference has been the promised attendance of more than 40 nations, many of them Israel's Arab neighbors. Saudi Arabia will be sitting down to discuss the Palestinian question with Israel for the first time, and Syria will also attend in the hopes of pressing its claims to the Golan Heights, a disputed territory Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reports that though Syria will attend, it seems unlikely that any major overtures will be made about the Golan.
Damascus had previously said it would not attend the conference unless the Golan Heights were on the agenda.
It is by no means clear to what extent the Golan will indeed be up for negotiation in Annapolis, the BBC's Joe Floto in Jerusalem says. Correspondents say Syria's decision to send a deputy minister - rather than the foreign minister like other Arab states - may be due to this uncertainty.
Sources within the Israeli delegation say the issue of the Golan Heights will not appear on the main agenda. But they have suggested the territory could still be discussed.
Nevertheless, some commentators see Syrian participation at any level as a minor breakthrough. Writing in Canada's Globe and Mail, correspondent Mark Mackinnon says that while the likelihood of progress is dim, Syria's presence could herald the start of something more.
The decision by Syrian President Bashar Assad to send [Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal] Mekdad opens the door for something real to come out of this process. But for that faint promise to be realized, it will require a rapid defrosting of relations between the United States and Syria, which Washington has for years treated as a pariah state, accusing it of supporting "terrorists" in Iraq and around the region.
Privately, top Israeli officials say that making peace with Syria is far easier than doing a deal with the Palestinians since the issues involved are clearer and less emotionally charged. It's far easier for Mr. Olmert to sell Israelis on the idea of surrendering the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria than it is to convince them that Jerusalem needs to be divided and hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers removed from the West Bank.
And Syria has something to give in return. Unlike all the other attendees at Annapolis, Syria holds real influence over Hamas, the militant Islamist group that trumped Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement in the parliamentary election last year and then trounced them militarily six months ago, seizing control of the Gaza Strip, half of the putative Palestinian state. Despite its central role, Hamas didn't receive an invitation to Annapolis, leading many to question how serious Mr. Bush's peace initiative really is.
Mackinnon and others argue that if Syria were somehow mollified at the Annapolis conference, it could exert influence over Hamas to stop rocket fire at Israel from Gaza. But there are few signs so far that Hamas is being reined in.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) quotes a Hamas spokesman dismissing the conference: "The decisions taken at Annapolis are not binding on the Palestinian people, who have not authorised anyone, either Arab or Palestinian, to erase their rights," Fawzi Barhum told AFP.
Later on Monday (Hamas) planned to convene, along with the smaller Islamic Jihad group, a "counter-conference" to the US gathering to warn the Palestinian leadership not to make any concessions to the Israelis.
"Our conference will carry the message of the dangers of a normalisation of ties with Israel," Barhum said. "The Palestinian cause should not serve as a vehicle for Arabs and the international community to normalise their relations with the Israeli enemy."
And Hamas has another international ally who is resolutely opposed to the conference: Iran. Reuters reports that the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the meeting as "doomed to failure."
"They hope that in this way (by holding this conference) they can give assistance to the Zionists," Khamenei said, referring to Israel. Khamenei, who has the last say in all matters of state in Iran, had urged Muslim countries to boycott the meeting.
"Arab countries must be aware of the plots and tricks by the Zionist enemy," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a telephone conversation with Saudi with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah late on Sunday, Iranian state media reported.